James Cameron‘s upcoming film Avatar (not to be confused with Nickelodeon‘s Avatar) is already drawing a great deal of criticism. This is despite the fact that the film is not yet finished. While it is reasonable to criticize what is known about the film (it is expensive and not yet done) it is not reasonable to make judgments about the quality of the film itself until it has been finished and seen.
From what I have seen of the film, it does seem to draw heavily from existing sources. First, people are making the obvious connection to Dances With Wolves. However, it is even more appropriate to go back before that movie and compare Avatar’s core plot device with that of the (original) Outer Limits episode Chameleon. In this episode a human is genetically modified to pass as an alien so that he might discern their purpose (and kill them if need be). He finds that the aliens are actually morally superior to humans and ends up joining them (or at least the sole survivor after he kills the others). No doubt there are numerous other science-fiction stories with similar themes that predate even the Chameleon episode.
Of course, it is rather difficult to create a movie that does not draw from some pre-existing source. Interestingly, some movies are actually lauded for doing so. A good example of this is Star Wars (the original movies) which brilliantly weaves together an array of old threads (the farm boy who seeks adventure, the wise old man, the dashing hero, the princess, the evil empire, the plucky rebels, the Tao, and so on) into a “new” story. As such, Cameron should not be criticized for re-using a plot device or theme-provided the movie successfully weaves the old into something new. If Cameron simply copies these other works, then the film should be regarded as artistic plagiarism. Interestingly, Cameron’s Terminator film was alleged to have been “copied” from two episodes of the Outer Limit. My own view is that although Cameron was probably (okay certainly) influenced by those episodes, Terminator is is significantly different story.
Second, comparisons are being drawn to the Vietnam war (and other conflicts). On the face of it, this seems reasonable. Naturally enough, the fact that visually the soldiers and equipment resemble those of the Vietnam war (for example the VTOL craft look like modified Huey UH-1 helicopters) lends credence to this claim. Of course, while there may be debate about whether we need yet another movie commenting on the Vietnam War (or commenting on the current wars through commenting on Vietnam) even if the movie does this it is no mark against it. After all, some very good movies are created to (in part) comment on war.
Naturally, there is also some criticism of the cost of the movie. While cost is something worth considering, it is only a real problem if the movie does not make a profit. After all, it is not just a matter of how much a movie costs-it is also a matter of how the cost matches up against the box office take (and other revenue). If Avatar makes a Titanic amount of money, then the movie would be a success financially. Sure, it would be better to make that sort of money without spending as much, but such profits can be presented as a justification for the expenditures.
Speaking of Titantic (and Terminator 2), Cameron has a track record of being able to deliver. Perhaps this will hold this time as well. Then again, perhaps Avatar will not turn out to be like Dances with Wolves, but rather Waterworld.
As a final point, even the negative buzz about the movie might help it. After all, the more people hear about the film, the more likely it is that they will go to see it on opening day. Of course, too much negative buzz might have the opposite effect.