Most of the criticism I’ve heard about « Avatar » boils down to this: we’ve seen it all before.
Not the special effects- most people seem to agree that the film looks great, especially in 3D. What they are referring to is the story - how every scene seems to echo something from « Dances with Wolves« , « Pocahontas« , « The Last of the Mohicans » and a score of other films that deal with colonists vs. natives.
In short, the film is not « original ».
And original is good, right? I love to hear a new story just as well as the next person.
But here’s the thing: people all over the world (and throughout all of human history, probably) also love hearing the same stories over and over and over again. But not just any stories- special ones, with particular themes and character types that we never seem to grow tired of. These stories/myths/legends deal with archetypal events (birth, initiation, etc) and archetypal figures (hero, trickster, mother, etc).
You could, as I heard one recent reviewer on NPR do, call « Avatar » a montage of tired old tropes . (In fact, she used the word « trope » so many times in her five minute review that it made me suspect that she’d gotten a word-a-day calendar for Christmas). But if you know the work of , say, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell or James Frazer, you might instead call the film an archetypal narrative.
I have a master’s degree in anthropology and that background heavily influences me when I see a film like « Star Wars » or « Avatar » . Calling myths and fairy tales « unoriginal » isn’t very interesting or useful to me. What’s really fascinating is finding the common cross-cultural themes. What are the stories/themes that get repeated for generations? What’s in them that’s true and holds lessons for every new generation?
« Avatar » features a hero that must go through initiation and rebirth, two of the most basic ancient archetypal events. He’s the outsider that transforms himself by passing through trials and becomes an insider.
And then there’s the Tree of Souls. You ever read a big old book called « The Bible »? No? Then please find one and just read the first few pages. Done? Good. Did you notice that there’s kind of an important tree in it? That’s one good clue that the « sacred tree » is an archetypal concept. And if even ONE more person says or writes « There’s a ‘tree of life’ in Pocahontas and a ‘tree of souls’ in « Avatar »! COPYCATS! GAH! » I may just have to whomp him/her on the head with a large, heavy sacred tree branch.
(For extra credit, look in the second half of the Bible. It features a character that sacrifices his earthly body to save an entire race…)
I’m not saying the film is explicitly Christian. What I’m saying is that both this film and the Bible tap into much older archetypes- ancient templates that help humans understand the world. And at some deep level, most of us understand this, because most of us seem willing to listen to/read/watch these primal narratives over and over again. « Original » and « new and improved » as desirable attributes are relatively modern inventions. When someone sits down to hear about how her culture says the world began, she doesn’t want to hear something different every time. That desire children have to hear the same story repeated every night is deeply ingrained and there's a reason for it.
Is « Avatar » unoriginal?
Well…yeah, it is. But that's not what we need to be asking.
How about let's ask: Did it tell a story you want to hear? Do you want to hear it again? Did you find it satisfying at some deep level? Did you find it emotionally involving?
I’d have to say « yes » to all those questions. Even though I «knew» the story, I found it very touching and the 161 minutes of running time seemed to fly by. Even better, I liked the discussion it provoked among my children. It provided a framework for talking about greed, ecology, colonialism and racism (sometimes I was uncomfortable with how it portrayed the « noble savages ». And also: Why does the future have no black people, Mr. Cameron ?)
I liked "Avatar" very much, just as I liked "Star Wars" and "LOTR", two other symbolically rich, archetype-laden films. And instead of ignorantly picking at it, I wish the critics would go read something first- something like Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", a very fine old book on comparative mythology and archetypes. Then we'll talk.
Also: I think Michelle Rodriguez is a very fine actress. Why does she always have to play the tough-Latina-with-a-heart-of-gold-who-gets-killed-off-before-the -film-is-even-over ?
Plus, someone should tell Leona Lewis that « Titanic » called and it wants it’s theme-song back.