It's so rare to come across a really good SF movie, that I couldn't resist analyzing Avatar the same way I try to analyze the writing craft of books to see what makes them work. Turns out, it's not too different when it comes to analyzing movies. Most of the elements that make a good book also make a good movie - interesting characters, suspenseful plot, good dialogue.
I was startled by how much I loved the movie, so much that after seeing it the first time with a friend, I went right back with my husband and oldest daughter because I loved it so much I wanted them to see it, too. Here are five factors that I think account for its broad appeal (not a complete list, I'm sure).
1. amazing specific effects, and not just effects for the sake of effects, but a really beautiful, well-imagined and well-crafted fantasy world, with a budget that could afford to pay attention to details. James Cameron used cinematography to create something so fantastic that the only comparison at its level I can think of is Tolkien's Middle Earth, created by written fiction (and not equalled in its cinematic version - though it is tempting to think what the movie version of Lord of the Rings might have been like if they'd waited another 8 years for advances in special effects. Still, we have the Hobbit to look forward to)
2.lots of action: bang ‘em up, shoot ‘em up, some monstrous scary creatures, and some mythological-type creatures thrown in for good measure
3. Romeo and Juliet story, where people from two different cultures fall in love and their love triumphs over forces that would try to divide them (James Cameron apparently discovered how well this theme works in his other blockbuster, Titanic)
4. everybody loves an underdog, and it’s really cool to see the Nav’ii triumph against overwhelming odds. (This is also a big factor in the popularity of the Lord of the Rings, too, I believe, where two little hobbits defeat the Dark Lord against all odds).
5. “good vs. evil” plot that follows archetypal story structure and includes some spiritual themes that many people relate to, including pantheistic and Christian themes.
A lot of highly successful movies/books have two or maybe even three of these elements, but this movie goes all out and includes all five of them. No wonder I was hooked.
Just a little bit more about the archetypal story structure I mentioned above, also known as the monomyth or the hero's journey or hero's quest. There is an excellent book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler based on the comparative mythology research of Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero With a Thousand Faces.
A quote from Campbell's book:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Sound at all like the plot of Avatar?
I applied the Writer's Journey to the outlines of all three of my novels and it enabled me to really clarify and strengthen my plots.
It's hard not to see the hero's journey as the basis for almost all of the good books and movies I read and see now.