The stunning thing about the just-released trailer for Avatar — well, one of them — is just how derivative it appears to be, as if culled from the deleted scenes of every sci-fi or fantasy flick from the past 20 years. This is stunning because it’s the new film from James Cameron, and though the director hasn’t released a narrative feature since 1997 (something about a boat) or helmed a genre story since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, his name used to be synonymous with smart, engaging, original science-fiction. But the trailer for Avatar, whose story covers everything from instellar battles to cloning to spiritual transference, feels cobbled together from so many other sources. Here are the top five movies the upcoming Avatar has shamelessly ripped off. (But first, here’s the trailer to refresh your memory.)
The story: The stunningly bad CG-animated Delgo, which featured a voice cast including Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Jennifer Love Hewitt, currently holds the record for worst debut for a film opening on more than 2,000 screens (it earned $500k and change that weekend on its way to a grand total just shy of $700,000). Prinze voices the title character in a needlessly dense story about two alien races uniting to save their planet.
The parallel:Delgo set a new bar for horrible animation, especially in asking audiences to invest in the romantic tension between two badly drawn characters whose genders were impossible to differentiate. Granted, Cameron’s film has access to just slightly more capital, but setting CG characters in a real environment just heightens their unreality, and watching them sweep in for a kiss isn’t uplifting, it’s just eerie.
2. Battle for Terra
The story: In a future in which Earth has been destroyed, the surviving remnants of the human race mount a military offensive against the peaceful denizens of the planet Terra, who were clearly modeled after E.T. but rendered with some of the worst CG animation since, well, Delgo.
The parallel: Um, this is pretty much the same story as Avatar. Granted, the Cameron film’s trailer is all about image instead of specific plot points (a problem to be addressed later), but a war launched by humans against the harmless inhabitants of a faraway world dotted with floating islands? Come on. That’s shameless.
3. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
The story: This forgettable 1992 Fox animated feature was a product of its very earnest era: It’s all about a crusade to save the rainforests in a battle between the forces of good, represented by wood fairies, and an evil cloud of singing pollution (really), voiced by Tim Curry.
The parallel: Much of Avatar takes place on a faraway world and concerns a struggle between imperialist Earth forces and the blue, catlike natives bent on preserving their lush jungle home. It’s not that environmentalism is inherently a bad theme for a film, but for a sci-fi spectacle of this scope and pedigree, there needs to be more going on than just a desire to save the trees.
4. The Lord of the Rings
The story: For the seven of you who haven’t seen the movie, Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel deals with a quest to defeat the dark lord threatening to destroy the world and the eventual return of the people’s king and savior. (And no, it’s actually not an allegory.)
The parallel: Although most genre films owe a debt to the template Tolkien laid out, Avatar looks to be borrowing from Jackon’s series in slightly more specific ways, or at least does so enough to give pause. There’s the bow-wielding heroine, the world-spanning battles, the hero who loses his personality and learns to fight, all set against a world that’s been animated to the hilt. This movie wouldn’t even exist in its current form without Jackson. That’s not entirely a compliment.
5. Star Wars: Episodes I-III
The story: Over the course of three films, George Lucas turned a fantasy empire for children of all ages into a plodding and badly written discourse on the perils of interstellar trade tariffs. The films strove for an epic feel but came out feeling puffed up on their own hype, and only rarely able to connect on the gut level that had come easier to the franchise 30 years earlier.
The parallel: Of all the possible genre stories, the clip for Avatar seems most comfortable ripping off Lucas’ prequel trilogy. There’s the importance of clones, from Lucas’ decision to make an army of them to Cameron’s story about a soldier transplanting his personality into a cloned member of the alien race. (The trailer is mum on how space travel and cloning are possible but no one’s able to get a paraplegic a good set of robotic legs.) There’s the heavy use of CG characters, from Jar-Jar Binks to the central characters of Cameron’s film. Yes, animation has definitely advanced in 10 years, but that doesn’t mean these things aren’t any less goofy-looking, especially when forced to interact with real human beings. But worst of all, Lucas’ movies placed an emphasis on style over substance, acting as if a pod race or lightsaber duel could compensate for the absence of an engaging plot. Cameron’s film has the potential to fall into the same trap, especially since Avatar is meant to be seen in 3-D. It’s as if the movie was created not to tell a story but to take advantage of technology, which is never a reason to ask a viewer to throw down $10 and two-plus hours. If the trailer is any indication, Cameron’s in danger of ignoring the lesson Lucas forgot he ever taught: A special effect is just a tool, a means to tell a story. It’s not the story itself.
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