Bright Lights Film Journal

Some Cameroning, Part 1 – Avatar’s Sources

What’s so fresh and original about James Cameron’s Avatar?
Very little, to be honest.

The film’s design seems inspired by – if not directly borrowed from – the day-glo hyperrealism of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern paperback series and the videogame based on them:

Conceptually, Avatar recalls a 1966 Star Trek episode, “The Menagerie” in which a wheelchair-bound former starship captain (Sean Kenney, below)

has his mind transported into a perfect “dream-body” by these guys

 so he can live happily ever after with this person.

The basic white-man-joins-indigenous-people-and-falls-in-love-with-their-princess plotline is even older. The story of Pocahontas, as many have pointed out, is an obvious precedent (see, e.g., Terrence Malick’s The New World). An early sci-fi version of this plotline is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917)
in which Civil War veteran, John Carter, is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars, where he gains abilities beyond those of mortal earthmen (thanks to Mars’ lesser gravity) and – naturally – ends up marrying the local Princess.

The concept of an avatar, as such, is familiar to almost anyone who has joined Facebook or played a videogame. It is so much a part of popular culture that it was used – with a minimum of explanation or fuss – by Terry Gilliam in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (a film released at almost the same time as Avatar) to explain why whenever Heath Ledger steps into Dr. Parnassus’s “magic mirror” (below), he is replaced by another actor – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, or Colin Farrell.

So is Cameron little more than a skilled recycler of other people’s ideas, or is he a genuine auteur?