Script Review: James Cameron's Avatar

One of the big questions on everyone's brain here at Cinema Blend has been, for a long time now, what the heck is James Cameron's next movie really about? I asked that question again the other day in a post here on CB, and got an answer, in the form of an early version of the complete Avatar script emailed to me by a helpful reader. So, now we can all stop asking. Here's the skinny on Avatar.

Note: The following script review is based on an extremely early draft of the script being used by James Cameron on Avatar. The script being reviewed is several years old, and so it’s almost certain that many details may have changed since then. What I’m saying here is that what you end up seeing on screen may not match what we’re talking about in this review. You’ve been warned! For more information on Avatar, including complete cast and crew, visit our full preview here. Read on.

James Cameron’s Avatar is like Aliens meets Lord of the Rings if it were written by Al Gore, with the battle of Endor thrown in for good measure. It’s preachy, it’s repetitive, it’s derivative, and in spite of that when you see it up on a movie screen there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.

The early draft of Cameron’s script that this review is based upon, includes almost no actual lines of dialogue. Instead it’s pages are filled with lavish descriptions of places, creatures, and events. When characters must speak, the focus in the script is more on what their thinking, than in coming up with clever lines. If someone gives an impassioned speech, the script simply says “he gave an impassioned speech”, rather than telling you what he said. By contrast, Cameron has written volumes describing complicated visual sequences. It’s pretty clear he had special effects on the brain when he wrote it.

I’m going to do my best in this review to avoid spoiling the entire movie for you, while still giving you a pretty clear idea of what Avatar is about. That said, it’s impossible to talk about it without spoiling something, so if you want to go into this thing pure as the driven snow, then you might as well stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

So what the heck is this movie about? It’s pretty standard stuff really. A distant future where man has spoiled and overpopulated the Earth so badly that we’ve gone out into the cosmos searching for other planets to rape. The human race’s prime candidate is Pandora, a planet in a nearby star system inhabited by intelligent, bipedal natives. Our window into this world in this early draft of the script is a disillusioned, poverty-stricken, paraplegic war veteran named Josh Sully. There are other minor characters involved, most notably Grace, a haggard, rebellious scientist played by Sigourney Weaver and Zuleika, a way too sexy alien babe being voiced by Zoe Saldana, but Josh is the real focus of everything. My understanding is that in the most recent script being used to shoot the flick, Josh’s name has been changed to Jack Sully and he’s played by Sam Worthington. Us Joshs never seem to get a shot at being the hero. For now though, we’ll call him Josh.

Josh is, by a series of coincidences, ushered into the Avatar program. The Avatar program is what humans are using to communicate with Pandora’s natives, the Na'vi (because aliens love names with apostrophes). It’s the movie’s prime gimmick, so let me explain it. Human DNA and Na’vi DNA is fused together to create a clone which is, essentially, a Na’vi with no brain. They call it an Avatar. Human operators then use some sort of linking device which allows their mind to inhabit the Avatar, and then walk amongst the Na’vi and (in theory) better communicate with them. Those series of coincidences send Josh to Pandora to operate an Avatar, and that’s where the script gets into trouble.

Once Josh gets to the planet, the script’s first 90 of its 166 pages are spent almost entirely repeating this sequence: Josh or some other humans are attacked by the vicious alien animal and plant life on Pandora. They repel/escape/die from the attack. Repeat a few times. Take a break to tell us something about the human settlement on Pandora and the horrible way in which dumb, stupid, humans are raping the planet’s environment. Another attack by the planet’s much lauded environment. More preaching about how awful the humans are for shooting everything in sight. Keep repeating this until your eyes roll back in your head.

This will probably work better on screen, since we’ll all be much too busy being wowed by whatever amazing beasties Cameron has dreamed up to notice all the over the top (and frankly illogical in light of the planet’s hellish, anti-human nature) environmental messages we’re being clubbed to death with, or to realize that basically the movie’s just doing the same thing over and over again. At least I hope so. Otherwise, Cameron needs to step down off his soap box and then cut about 40 or 50 pages out of his script.

Eventually, Avatar does break out of that cycle of animal attack, escape, animal attack, escape, but in doing so it only gets more hippy dippy. Josh starts sympathizing with the primitive aboriginal Na’vi, who are wonderful and spiritual while humans are all dumb caricatures obsessed with blowing things up and burning them to make fast food wrappers. The other humans with him start sympathizing less with the natives, and decide to blow them up. This doesn’t sit well with Josh and the movie turns into Quigly Down Under. Actually, change that. I’ve just had a revelation: Avatar doesn’t turn into Quigley Down Under, it absolutely is Quigley Down Under right from the start. Cameron has just copy/pasted the entire script onto an alien planet, removed its sense of humor, and added more action sequences.

The whole thing culminates quite literally in an Ewoks versus Empire style super-battle, with the natives using such familiar Ewok battle tactics such as falling rocks, log battering rams, giant nets, and bolos to fight a desperate war against the encroaching death machines of Earth’s military industrial complex. The only difference really is that these Ewoks aren’t cute (though Cameron does seem to spend a lot of time trying to make his aliens are incredibly sexy and erotic), they don’t do much singing, and when they do kill something it’s in horribly gruesome, rated-R ways.

You’re probably getting the idea by now that I hated this script. Hate might be too strong a word, but disappointment is pretty accurate. However, I remain convinced that it’ll work as a movie. It’s just not much of a read. The real focus of Avatar’s script is in stunning, massive, over-sized, awe-inspiring visuals and I expect the movie to deliver those in such massive quantities that the stupidity of the pages on which its based on will go almost entirely unnoticed. I think the word I’m looking for here is “spectacle”. The visuals really are over the top, and if you’ve heard the rumors that this may end up being a primarily computer-generated movie, they’re dead on. Judging from what’s in the script, it’s likely that for at least 75 percent of the film you won’t see anything on the screen that isn’t a computer rendered construct. The entire planet and all the aliens on it will have to be completely CGI, and most of the movie is spent following them around in Pandora’s forest, with no real human present on screen except those which are wearing alien (and CGI rendered) Avatars.

It’s a visually ambitious project, and how well it plays on screen is likely to have more to do with how good WETA Digital’s computer artists are than whether or not the script bears a strange resemblance to Quigley Down Under. Besides, this is a pretty early, rough draft I’m talking about, from what I understand written several years ago. It’s a decent framework to start with, and with a few rewrites it could easily have gotten better. I guess what I’m saying here is that the script kind of sucks, but that doesn’t mean Avatar will suck as a movie too. It has big-budget, brainless popcorn potential, assuming they tone down the extremist environmentalism guilt trip and focus more on aliens, aircraft, and blowing shit up. But don’t expect anymore from that. It has lofty ambitions of making grandiose statements about the nature of humanity and the dangers of technology and disrespect for the environment, but it’s too clumsy, too cartoonish, too unrealistic, and too heavy handed to do any of that. It’s a blockbuster, and if it tries to be more than that expect Avatar to fall flat.

Josh Tyler