Avatar (2009) Revisited

I like science fiction and, as with so many other enthusiasts, I was excited by the prospect of watching James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ when it was first released. After seeing it, however, I was haunted by a persistent feeling of déjà vu.

The story goes like this: an ex-soldier is recruited by a private firm to remove peaceful natives from their home, which happens to be on top of a mother-load of valuable natural resources. The ex-soldier is at first keen to carry out the mission but then exposure to the natives changes his mind and he takes their side, leading to a huge battle, many dead, but the natives ultimately winning and defeating the technologically superior mercenaries.

Sound familiar?

It should, it is the screenplay of a 1994 film directed by Perry Lang and starring Dolph Lundgren called ‘Men of War’.

James Cameron’s Avatar simply moved the location from a tropical island on Earth to an equally tropical location on a planet called Pandora. A few new characters were added, a bit more background, some stunning visual effects, and references to a native religion that has some similarities with Pantheism. The main story and the action more or less follow the original plot, however.

One of the benefits of the COVID-19 lockdown is that I have watched quite a few movies that I might not have bothered to under more normal circumstances, one of these being Avatar. The plagiarism apart, as far as the story goes that is, Avatar does remain a visually entertaining movie. In many ways it represents what a film-maker can do with access to the appropriate technology. Occasionally, I got the feeling that images were included not because they added something but rather because they simply could, so the screen occasionally appeared to be overloaded with wonderful things. Fortunately, this did not seem to happen too often, but it did on occasion give rise to some awkward questions, such as; why were the Na’vi people tetrapods and humanoid?

Count them, 1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6 limbs!

The humanoid part of the question is easy to answer, it is so that Sam Worthington’s character of Jake Sully can be recognised, but the tetrapod part is more difficult. All vertebrates on our planet are tetrapods, that is, they have a spine and four limbs. This is true of snakes, their limbs are just vestigial. On Pandora most of the vertebrate animals have six limbs. The only ones who don’t seem to be hexapods are the Na’vi and their flying ikran. This curious evolutionary divergence is not, of course, examined at all in the film. Despite this anomaly the Na’vi appear to be able to connect and communicate with the ikran exactly as they do with the other animals on Pandora.

Avatar really is a visual feast that does not bear looking at too closely. The otherworldliness of the imagery is fine; just do not question the floating mountains. The story is derivative and predictable with most of the characters largely one dimensional. The cast is good, however, and the noble savage motif works well when faced by the high-tech weapons primed and loaded by the bad guys. The film lost out at the Oscars for the best film award, which was, in my opinion, the right decision. A landmark movie in terms of achievement in regard to the use of technology to realise a spectacular image, it failed in so many other areas, a totally unoriginal story being one of the most significant, to deserve the accolade of ‘Best Picture’.

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