The wheels of hype are starting to turn for Avatar, a science fiction adventure, set for release in December, that will mark James Cameron’s return to big-ticket filmmaking after breaking the bank with Titanic in 1997. The advance word has focused on the film’s 3-D technology, which is supposed to be amazing, but now that I’ve seen an outline of the plot I’m afraid there may be a low-tech storytelling problem waiting to trip Cameron up.
It’s pretty widely known that The Terminator, Cameron’s 1984 commercial breakthrough, got him into hot water with SF writer Harlan Ellison, who accused the director of plagiarizing “Soldier,” one of the scripts Ellison wrote for the original Outer Limits series. Ellison walked away with an undisclosed cash settlement and an acknowledgement on the closing credits of the cable and video releases of the film.
Now here comes Avatar, in which a paralyzed man is telepathically linked to a genetically engineered body that enables him to interact with alien creatures on a planet inhospitable to humans. I can’t help but be reminded of “Call Me Joe,” a classic 1957 story by the late Poul Anderson, in which a paraplegic man is telepathically linked to a genetically engineered body that enables him to live on and explore the surface of Jupiter. The science aspects of the story are pretty quaint now — not a whole lot was understood about Jupiter at the time the story was written — but the focus on the hero’s bitterness over his physical condition, and the joy he takes in his powerful Jovian avatar, gives the story considerable punch.
I like Cameron’s films. I also appreciate the fact that he knows his way around the SF genre and doesn’t try to obscure the fact with hocus pocus about Joseph Campbell and ancient myths, a la George Lucas. The leaked plot details of Avatar show that Cameron has taken the “Call Me Joe” premise in a direction all his own, but that was also true of The Terminator, as even Ellison has acknowledged. Poul Anderson is no longer with us, but a friend tells me Anderson’s widow and daughter are very much so. With the film’s release half a year away, Cameron might want to take the time to do some bridge-building with the Anderson family, and thereby save himself some embarrassment, if not money.