By Tim Rosenberger
What makes one film popular and memorable and another movie not may be open for new debate. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is approaching the end of its theatrical run with a new all-time domestic box office record and mostly positive feedback from viewers and critics. This was not the case for most previous domestic champ, James Cameron’s sci-fi film “Avatar.” The situation is curious since both films have been criticized for similar reasons.
“Force Awakens” – the seventh and newest film in the hit sci-fi, fantasy franchise – has currently brought in around $929.2 million at the domestic box office, approximately $168.7 million more than the overall domestic take of “Avatar” in 2009. But why so many people who derided “Avatar” are now praising “Star Wars” is hard to understand since the primary criticism of both films, a derivative plot, is the same.
The latest “Star Wars” film follows new, young heroes who have to team up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General Lei Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a group of freedom fighters called The Resistance. They need to defeat the evil First Order and find the missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). That process will strike “Star Wars” fans as very familiar
Our young heroes must return a droid with important information to The Resistance, much as Luke Skywalker returned R2D2 to the Rebels in the first “Star Wars” film, “A New Hope.” They must also destroy a giant space station that can obliterate entire planets, like the first movie’s Death Star. Finally, they have to defeat a dark Jedi who shares a connection with some of our heroes, as Darth Vader did in the second film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
“‘The Force Awakens’ is a retelling of ‘A New Hope’ and ‘Empire Strikes Back,’” said David Tarleton, sci-fi buff, moviemaker and film professor at Columbia College Chicago. “There are some basic ways in which huge elements from the movies are just recycled, but they’re recycled in ways that felt, to me at least, fresh.”
This may very well be the response of the millions of viewers around the world who have poured into to see “Force Awakens” since its premiere in December. Even as word of mouth spread about the film’s derivative elements, the movie continued to rake in money.
Dean Martin, founder of Liberty Street Geek Media and host of all its sci-fi related podcasts, is not bothered by story repetition.
“There’s not a lot of conflicts left in the writing world,” Martin said. “There’s only so many different conflicts you can have. I don’t mind if something is derivative. It doesn’t always bother me. I’m more about the execution of it.”
“Force Awakens” is repetitive, but Martin thought it was well executed. He enjoyed “Force Awakens” more the second time around, and his opinion did not change the third and fourth times he saw the movies. That was not the case with “Avatar.”
While Tarleton and Martin may have walked away from “Force Awakens” mostly pleased, Adrian Czarny, webmaster of the Cameron fansite jamescamerononline.com, left the theater feeling underwhelmed.
Once the nostalgia of revisiting old characters like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker wears off, he said, people will judge “Force Awakens” differently. It will not be forgotten, but that may have more to do with the “Star Wars” brand rather than the film’s own merits.
Where “Force Awakens” failed, “Avatar” succeeded, Czarny said, with its unmatched action and its ability to connect with people emotionally.
“Avatar” – which still holds the international box office record of $2.8 billion, about $700 million more than “Force Awakens” so far– follows a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, who travels to a planet named Pandora in 2154. The planet’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans. To allow Jake to research the untamed planet and its intelligent, blue-skinned natives, scientists have devised an avatar body he can inhabit.
Trouble arises when authorities at a mining operation want Jake to infiltrate the natives’ society to help the operation acquire a valuable mineral called unobtanium. Jake sides with the natives to protect them and their natural habitat from the forces that would destroy them.
The “Avatar” plot resembles such films as the 1992 animated movie “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” Disney’s 1995 “Pocahontas” and Kevin Costner’s 1990 Academy Award-winning film, “Dances with Wolves.” All of them dealt with environmental themes and/or hostile characters immersing themselves in a native culture only to come to love and protect the natives in the end.
“Avatar” was derivative by design, Czarny said. Cameron wanted to use a classic archetype story but tell it in a way nobody had ever seen.
That the movie recycled plot elements is not important to Czarny. He appreciates how they are combined to create something new.
“Someone once said that if you put vodka, apple sour and melon mix together you get an Apple Martini,” Czarny said. “All of those ingredients pre-existed the drink, but they were never together. ‘Avatar,’ and any other movie for that matter, is just that.”
Czarny would not say “Avatar” has been entirely forgotten. There has just been an enormous drop in public interest in the film.
“Avatar” suffers from the same syndrome as Cameron’s “Titanic,” Czarny said. It was loved when it premiered, but people have not seen it since and their faded memories do not do the film justice. Another possibility, he said, is, like “Titanic,” people might have seen “Avatar” so many times that it became overkill.
Czarny’s views on “Avatar” are not shared by everyone. Martin, for example, liked “Avatar” a lot when it came out, but once the spectacle of the film wore off, he found that it lacked depth. He also did not really care about the underdeveloped characters.
Despite his declining enthusiasm, Martin still considers “Avatar” a good film. Its impressive computer technology is one reason he thinks the movie set box office records. Its immersive CGI world offered a technological spectacle that no one had ever seen before.
Also, Martin said, the idea of people living through avatars speaks to the generation of young people who live through computers, Twitter profiles and expansive online games like “World of Warcraft.”
Tarleton – who called “Avatar” unoriginal because of its plot similarities with “Ferngully,” “Pocahontas” and “Dance with Wolves” – also found something enjoy in “Avatar.” He appreciated its hints at politics with Pandora standing in for Iraq, unobtanium representing oil, and the film’s critique of capitalism and the military-industrial complex.
Ultimately, “Force Awakens” will not be forgotten because “Star Wars” is infused into the zeitgeist, Martin said. “Avatar” never became part of the public consciousness in a similar way, he said, through no fault of its own. The entertainment world has changed radically since 1977 when the first “Star Wars” burst onto theater screens.
“We are consuming movies so much faster than we used to,” Martin said, “unless there’s this – in the science fiction world anyway – sequel attached and this saga, [movie moves into] the grind. It’s in the treadmill of films that are just turning over and turning over and turning over. [‘Avatar’] came out in that time. What’s happening is we want the next movie, we want the next movie, we want the next movie.”
There has been talk of “Avatar” sequels as far back as 2006, before the first film was even finished, but the proposed follow-ups have been delayed several times. Back-to-back filming of the sequels is rumored to start in April. This has not officially announced, however, and so may not happen. If the sequels ever get off the ground, Czarny is not sure they would be as successful as the first film.
“That is a big mystery to me as well,” he said, “and their outcome will reveal whether ‘Avatar’ was just a flash in the pan or a new mythology that captures the imagination and hearts of people around the world of all generations and races.”