One of the common complaints against the movie “Avatar” is that the story is nothing new. Or to put it a little more harshly, the story was completely stolen from “Dances with Wolves” or “The Last Samurai”. Well as most writers know, there are only so many variations of stories that can be written. Ok, so maybe James Cameron and company could have fleshed out some of the plot points a little more – made things a little less obvious and included some genuine surprises. But they did succeed in one element that is just as important as crafting a solid story (and yes “Avatar” does have a solid story, even if it is derivative).
For the last half of “Avatar” to succeed on any level we have to believe the characters. And as simple as they are, we do believe them. There are three foundation characters. If they work than you’re 50% of the way there. With a firm group of supporting characters, even the most familiar story can generate excitement and emotion.
Jake Sully is introduced to us in the first moments of the film. He’s our lead as well as our guide into the world we are about to see. Cameron does something interesting with him. Jake is a disabled vet, a type of character that immediately generates sympathy. We know from his first lines that he’s still has the marine mentality, but that he genuinely seems like a good guy. Not only is the character immediately sympathetic but the loss of his legs actually create key character points as well as a few plot points.
In addition, we see that Jake is pretty open to learning, which is essentially what drives his initial interest in the Avatar program. He learns quickly and has a strong desire to do so. This is what ends up triggering his growth as a character. He learns to see the situation from both perspectives and then make his choices based on that view. Luke Skywalker has a similar experience in “The Empire Strikes Back” where he is eager to learn, but must see the world and it’s situations from more than one perspective – something he doesn’t master till “Return of the Jedi”.
The other two key characters are Neytiri as the teacher/love interest for Jake and the antagonist Colonel Quaritch. Both hit the familiar beats in the story that we expect them to, but at the same time they are kept realistic and interesting. Neytiri’s dedication to her people and her world are clear and provide the viewer and Jake with the lessons needed to survive on Pandora. From Jake she learns to see things as he does, and in the course grows to care for him.
Then there is the determined Colonel Quaritch. His story about his first day on Pandora not only provides us with a bit of environmental information, but also develops Quaritch. There is a rage inside him and I think that scar on his face is the obvious embodiment of that rage. He hates Pandora for what it does to him and the men under him. He is determined to show Pandora that he will not be defeated. His focus on Jake as an embodiment of the force of Pandora, as well as viewing him as traitor sets up the conflict. It also doesn’t hurt that Quaritch is a competent soldier who is every bit as dangerous as he claims to be. The final showdown between the two men is intended to be thrilling and because of the set up it is.
Examining the story from this point of view makes it a bit clearer how important the characters were to making the movie effective. Sure we’ve seen these tropes before, and we are even familiar with the path they will take, but when they are done right, even easily identifiable roles can be entertaining.What did you think of Avatar’s characters? Can you think of another example of where a plain story was enhanced by good character execution? How about the opposite?