After reading all the things that AVATAR is supposed to have ripped off, you’re sure to wonder if there is a SHRED of originality in the movie — that is, aside from the brand new way of shooting movies that took years to develop.

While the usual suspects — POCAHONTAS, DANCES WITH WOLVES, FERNGULLY — have been well annotated, Rich Johnston digs up yet another old comic that featured bluish flying peoples.

And Heavy.com continues its investigation of Avatargate in which the all-time money maker movie is based on an obscure 2000 A.D. strip.

Botanist Hendrick Larsen arrives on the planet Gennyo-Leil, to live among the native Kesheen and explore the world – home to the Firekind, huge dragons full of miracle drugs that make humans young and virile again. Larsen needs to wear something called a Filter:Mask at all times, since the atmosphere of Gennyo-Leil kills humans. After watching the Kesheen have weird, unsettling alien sex practices, Larsen is blamed for several massacres and cast out, to die alone. What happens next is the weird drugs in the atmosphere re-wire Larsen’s brain, letting him join a tribe of outcast natives (outcast for having kinky sex, in case you needed to know) and share in their psychic link. Pretty soon a band of sadistic mercenaries show up (having framed Larsen for the earlier atrocities, intent on killing all the Kesheen and stealing their dragon-drugs. Backed into a corner, Larsen has no choice but to summon the destructive all-god of the planet, turning wildlife and a massive colossus against the human fleet and turning his back on his own species.

With all due respect to these tireless investigators, we’re with Graeme McMillan on this one: Yes, Yes, We Get It: Avatar Is Unoriginal.

We’re not saying that James Cameron didn’t, necessarily, rip off these comics – although it’s unlikely – or any number of other sources, but we’re surprised by how many of these claims are being made. Is it because the movie is so unoriginal, or just so successful? And can everyone stop with the accusations before we start feeling sorry for James Cameron?

Perhaps part of the reason the story in AVATAR sounds so familiar is that James Cameron was channeling the pulp milieu with the kind of simple story — stranger in a strange land — that was a staple in SF from ERB to John W. Campbell and beyond. And Roger Dean, whom so many have compared the film’s look to, was following in the footsteps –with airbrush — of Frazetta, Virgil Finlay, Kelly Freas, and so on.

Now, it is true that Cameron’s pulp homage with future-making movie effects is still more on the nose than say, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which similarly mines pulp tropes but with fresher characters and dialog. A word of warning, King of the World: when you spend years looking into a monitor, it’s quite possible you just lose that ear for dialog.


  1. Once branded…
    Harlan Ellison successfully received credit for “Terminator” after Cameron mentioned that “Soldier” and “Demon With A Glass Hand” inspired the story.
    Compare “Terminator” to “Screamers”…

    In a post-modern society, might we see the rise of copyright screeners, who, like patent lawyers, search for creative content and license storylines to avoid future litigation?

    And… does anyone still think George Lucas swiped stuff from the Wizard of Oz (which is in the public domain)?

  2. totally agree Heidi — all I kept saying to myself when I saw it was I hope when Princess of Mars comes out people don’t say “Oh it’s just Avatar redux.” It’s not that there are no original ideas left , but there’s a reason this narrative keeps showing up and has ran away to the bank: it’s a story that appeals to our imagination (and guilt) over all these issues of exploration, settlement, primitivism, etc. But it’s about execution: no one does that slow zoom/ride to a new insular world like Cameron does, whether it’s LV-426 or the Titanic. Plus it’s totally a monster movie, too.

  3. First, nobody will ever accuse Cameron being original. Harlan Ellison will tell you that. Aliens is more Starship Troopers (the novel) than Alien. The Abyss is The Day The Earth Stood Still. True Lies is a remake and Titanic is, well, Titanic.

    And I still love the guy because he does what he’s supposed to do. He entertains.

    If you write, you know there are about seven stories that can be told. A storytellers job isn’t to invent a new one (good luck with that) but to take an old one and tell in an interesting way. Cameron does this. I expect a hamburger to be some kind of ground meat between two buns and anything that comes out of the kitchen like that qualifies. Cameron is the guy who puts bacon on it and sends it out and people complain he didn’t reinvent the hambuger. He can’t. Julia Child couldn’t. What he did put his own spin on it and that’s fine.

    Terminator Salvation, on the other hand, is day old microwaved leftovers.

    What ticks me off is how everybody cites a dozen sources from Call Me Joe to Ferngully as things he ripped off but if there are so many sources, aren’t we saying is that the White Man Goes Native story is just a standard like the Detective story or the Revenge story.

    How come nobody threw Dances With Wolves under the bus for being Pocahontas? How come nobody said Last Samurai was essentially Dances With Wolves? How come District 9 has all the same elements of Avatar, yet it’s considered brilliant and Avatar is a ripoff?

    It is what is. Cameron never told you it was the best thing you’d ever see and neither did Fox. People did. If you made a list of the thirty best genre films in the past thirty years, every single Cameron film would be on that list.

    And so you know, Avatar is my least favorite of his films and it’s still damn good.

  4. With TERMINATOR Ellison lucked out in having got hold of a smoking gun: Cameron’s overheard admission of guilt.

    But if he didn’t have that, why wouldn’t TERMINATOR have been a valid riff on the “Soldier” concept?

    Does anyone think that nowhere in the history of SF that the essential element of time-traveling combatants was used before Ellison? I confess I can’t think of a prominent one offhand, but even if there’s just some minor Gardner Fox novel, even that would establish the possibility that Ellison derived his idea from a previous model.

    For that matter, when I was reminded of TIME SPIRITS, I thought: “ecowarrior version of JOHN CARTER.”

  5. There are ultimately, at the base level, only a limited number of stories that can be told, and even then you have overlap of the archetypes from one to the next. Read Frazer’s The Golden Bough. he opens the book basically traversing the globe connecting elements from one myth or legend to another from one ethnic group to the next. And big, mass appeal movies, especially of the sci-fi variety, inherently need to fuse large, generalized elements together, to recall those basic, almost racial memories of these shared formulas.

    I think so many people seeing so many correlations and influences from other works ultimately defeats all this flim-flam and argle bargle. I mean, this is Avatar. not the Matrix.

  6. Ho Hum. I found Avatar to be uninspiring, simply because I had read all (or most) of those stories mentioned above, and others as well. What makes it unique is the technology is finally catching up with the silver screen in my mind. And just goes to show that people are becoming imaginatively lazy, allowing others to do the imagining for them. Yet more evidence of the trends helping people not to think hits S-F/Fantasy…or is that idea a rip-off of “Brave New World”? I also hated the LOTR trilogy, it was nowhere close to the images that run through my mind when I read the books.

  7. “How come nobody threw Dances With Wolves under the bus for being Pocahontas?”

    Because Dances With Wolves preceded Pocahontas by several years, filmwise. And nobody outside of American History professors knew who Pocahontas was until Disney made a movie about her.

    “How come nobody said Last Samurai was essentially Dances With Wolves?”

    I recall more than a few people saying just that.

    “How come District 9 has all the same elements of Avatar, yet it’s considered brilliant and Avatar is a ripoff?”

    Perhaps because District 9 uses them in interesting and creative ways to tell a story worth telling, rather than treating them as a perfunctory backdrop for shiny tricks?

  8. How is AVATAR a ripoff of PRINCESS OF MARS?

    I’m surprised no none said AVATAR was a ripoff of the low budget CGI film BATTLE FOR TERRA.

  9. This is really simple.

    District 9 isn’t a rip-off while Avatar is a rip-off because District 9 is a serious, honest, head-long rush into dealing with race and the absolute bleakness of nationalism, actually-existing refugee concentration camps (France, among many others, has run such camps), and the future of urban spaces. It manages to do that while taking the standard White Savior narrative and bashing its head in: Unlike the pristine transhumanism of Avatar, District 9 showed a white guy transmuted into a person of color and realizing that it’s really, really awful to live as someone oppressed and the main character clearly didn’t simply shed his internal whiteness. The guy is still a bit of a shitbag throughout the entire film.

    District 9 was a film about the future while Avatar was a mean little movie bringing up some fairly horrible racist stereotypes (shit, complete with half naked indigenous women!) that seemed more an opportunity for Cameron to vent his total failure to do jack shit to stop either of the wars we’re currently in.

    Who cares whether a movie is original? Avatar sucks because it traffics in abusive stereotypes, not because the plot has been done before.

    And for the record, the Dances With Wolves comparison has usually been made on the grounds that both movies share the same narrative of race, not that Dances With Wolves was some amazing film that Avatar simply poached.

  10. Avatar is great. I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but I was surprisingly impressed. Yes, even with the story even though it has been done a thousand times already. I credit the actors for making me care, though, not the script for being well written.

    We are all influenced by the things we read and watch. Sometimes it makes its way into our brains when we create. That doesn’t make it a rip-off. I believe I read once that Alan Moore was writing a story, and at some point realized he was just rewriting something he had read some time ago and immediately killed the project. It happens, and there’s no reason for James Cameron to apologize for taking elements from various places, throwing in a few of his own, and creating an incredible film out of it. That’s what he did, and he deserves the credit.

    “Harlan Ellison successfully received credit for “Terminator” after Cameron mentioned that “Soldier” and “Demon With A Glass Hand” inspired the story. ”
    “With TERMINATOR Ellison lucked out in having got hold of a smoking gun: Cameron’s overheard admission of guilt.”

    credit isn’t money, and being inspired by isn’t theft. There’s no reason to admit guilt over being inspired by the work of someone else. Most creators today are inspired by someone or their work. There are some that incorporate their influences into something new, and there are some that look like they trace magazine cover models and put costumes on top and get paid lots of money for it.

    Hollywood is notorious for its shady tactics. If they want to option your creation and you don’t want to sell, they’ll just hire a screenwriter to create something that tells the same story but is different enough so you can’t sue them. For example, Wanted looks nothing like the comic book, so Mark Millar was smart to accept their offer because if he hadn’t they would have still made a film similar to the one they released anyway but with a different title and character names. Why pay option money when you can just create something like Heroes which is drowning in Marvel/DC “rip-offs.”

    Avatar vs. District 9?: One is adventure and one is drama. That’s really the main difference, and you get two completely new experiences from that slight deviation.

    It has all been done before. Some people can’t get past that, and that’s unfortunate for them.

  11. I didn’t mean a rip-off, but a re-imagining. Guy goes to crazy world, encounters monsters, and falls for the alien, tinted girl. I swear there is a quote out there about Cameron wanting to see/create “a” Barsoom on film (a completely realized alien world) but I can’t remember when, where, or even if.

    The whole “sleeping-as-travel” too — really interesting to see how ERB kind of guessed right at that, sorta.

  12. and the Force was the source, Darth Vader was Doctor Doom, and how many other influences on Star Wars? yet i bet the same peeps criticizing Avatar for being so “influenced” loved Star Wars. Both were powerhouse amalgamations, so much so that they were, despite all their influences, NEW! magic.

  13. “And… does anyone still think George Lucas swiped stuff from the Wizard of Oz (which is in the public domain)? ”

    Might be easier to list what Lucas didn’t *cough* home in Star Wars — Hidden Fortress, Triumph of the Will, etc etc

  14. AVATAR has a lot in common with Robin Hobb’s “Soldier Son” trilogy, but I’m guessing that they were both inspired by the same stuff, not that either was ripped off from the other.

  15. I still say Avatar ripped off a subplot of J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 specifically the fate of Babylon 4.

Comments are closed.