(Guest post by Dagnabbitt)
Comparisons between James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are unsurprising – but not well-supported.
Plot-wise, “Avatar” is far simpler – as befits Cameron’s lesser story-telling capability compared to Professor Tolkien (this is not a criticism but a critique – Cameron is elevated above his peers because of his consistent strong females, but he hardly is an Oxford don who was the leading subject matter expert of his time).
Cameron wends traditional romance storylines amongst his plots, as studios believe that audiences need a love story in order to connect to a film.
Indeed, Jackson had to expand greatly upon the love story in “LOTR” because the source material had not done so, by modern interpretation. This is a misinterpretation, however: the love affair that “LOTR” had was with the world of innocence before the corrupting influence of totalitarianism.
Tolkien, after all, fought in World War I and wrote “LOTR” during World War II; his perspective with regard to TOTAL war, its purposes, and its consequences, had much more clarity than most of our contemporary American screenwriters, very few of whom ever have had such an experience.
Cameron once again has the theme that scientific pursuit when catalyzed by a drive for profit (his “Terminator” films, “Aliens” and “The Abyss”) is evil – i.e., this is the motivation of the antagonist(s) and therefore it is bad; if this were not such a commonly-projected trope in mainstream cinema (“Oooh, those evil businessmen!), it may have been workable.
As it is, however, it is uninspiring and detracts from the visual spectacle (of which Cameron justifiably is one of the few masters, along now with Jackson) of an actual cinematic experience. One should desire a storyline as epic in theme as the supporting visuals.
This is why “LOTR” DID work as a near-profound story, despite Jackson’s diluting changes: war veteran Tolkien recognized that real evil is far more than a mere capitalistic impulse, having faced it and fought it (and more importantly, having seen the damaging consequences upon all participants – the greatest omission by Jackson was eliminating the penultimate chapters of “LOTR”), but modern audiences doubtfully are sage enough to appreciate this, having been fed a consistent vision only of war as a form of vicarious entertainment, and a consistent theme of war as a failure of non-violent resolutions.
It often IS that – Colin Powell famously remarked upon this – but it also often is a necessary resolution against otherwise irredeemable factors. This is what Tolkien understood, and it comes out even in the film version – consider the younger hobbits’ argument to the ents not to remain neutral, or Aragorn’s rallying call at the gates of Mordor.
“Avatar” reflects its author’s 60s-era-defining perspective – common among most of Cameron’s peers, including Steven Spielberg (but significantly NOT including Eastwood; “Unforgiven,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” skew towards Tolkien’s view) – that war is the end result of the protagonist’s failure to come to a resolution by any other means.
This makes for an acceptable third act climax – the antagonists finally are defeated – but it also makes for an EXPECTED third act climax. This is where the “Avatar” story itself fails: a film of this ambition should be ambitious on all levels, Dagnabbitt!