I was reading about this upcoming sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise called Oblivion.  The IMDb synopsis says:

A court martial sends a veteran soldier to a distant planet, where he is to destroy the remains of an alien race. The arrival of an unexpected traveler causes him to question what he knows about the planet, his mission, and himself.

Hmm.  That sounds a bit like the plot of what I consider the most overrated movie of all time, Avatar.  Also like Avatar, this thing seems to share a name with another, totally unrelated franchise.

Of course, people say the idea for Avatar was itself stolen from Edgar Rice Burroughs, or some British comic book, or Dances with Wolves.  I wouldn’t say “stolen”, exactly; but it’s an age-old plot.

The plot of Avatar is:

  • Guy is sent by military to deal with exotic natives to help pursue military’s interests.
  • Guy becomes sympathetic to natives.
  • Guy rebels against military, helping natives.

This is, in broad strokes, also the plot of one of my favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia.  The difference is in how it’s done–compare the character of General Allenby in Lawrence with Colonel Hambone from Avatar.  (Okay, so that’s not his name.  But it should have been.)

This is so often the case with fiction.  Another example:

“A video game about someone who causes tremendous damage to a planet, and must then face the consequences of that action.”

This could be describing either Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords or Tonic Trouble.  The former I consider to be the greatest game ever made; a masterpiece of storytelling and characterization, complete with a philosophical depth more powerful than any other work of fiction I have seen.  The latter is about a purple cartoon alien who fights mutant tomatoes.  “The Devil is in the details”, as they say.

Zaphodb2002 pointed out in a comment on this post that if you just give a synopsis of the most basic points, so many great works don’t sound all that impressive.  It is, as he said, how the story is told.

Today the most overrated movie in history is being re-released in theaters. As die-hard Avatar fans flock to theaters to witness an extension of the film’s cliched and obligatory love story, and more of Mr. Cameron’s heavy-handed and predictable political satire; we must ask the question: can movies ever really be considered art?

Okay, okay, I joke. Of course movies are art. But it’s stunning to me that some, such as Roger Ebert, deride video games while still praising the disaster that is Avatar. I mean, I’m writing this while taking a brief break from playing the great Black Isle video game Planescape: Torment. It’s sort of insulting to me that I have to defend the medium that gave us epic stories like Torment from people who love Avatar.

[Technical Note: For some odd reason, I was unable to put links into this post. I apologize for not being able to send you directly to someplace where you could buy Planescape: Torment, because if you don’t know what it is, you have to play it ASAP.]

“Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days
   which have long since passed away,
And convince ’em, if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne was Culture’s palmiest day.
Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever’s fresh and new,
   and declare it’s crude and mean,
For Art stopped short in the cultivated court 

Roger Ebert was named the “Webby Person of the Year” for his “contributions to the craft of online writing and journalism. In addition to his film criticism, which remains as eloquent as ever, his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.”

“Film criticism”? “Eloquent”? Give me a break. This guy gave Avatar four stars, and then has the guts to say that video games aren’t art. One can almost hear the Roger Eberts of a century ago complaining that “it’s not art if it’s captured on film!” The arrogance is appalling… which is probably why he liked Avatar so much.

As for “raising the bar for thoughtfulness one can achieve on the web”, well… over to you, John Nolte!

…and yet it’s the highest grossing film of all time. James Cameron is apparently some sort of genius at promoting stuff. I have to say it is a remarkably lame movie, yet somehow he has convinced everyone to go see the thing. He ought to be a marketer, not a filmmaker. 

As I write this, I see Avatar ranks #41 on the IMDb Top 250 movies list. This is insane. It’s one spot ahead of Lawrence of Arabia? Two spots ahead of Terminator 2, which Cameron made before he forgot everything he knew about movie making?

Madness. Madness. (It’s undeservedly ahead of that movie, too.)