Pandora's Box - An Avatar blog

Another Avatar lawsuit: Is James Cameron a plagiarist?

Are claims against the Avatar director damaging his credibility?

I have been a fan of James Cameron's work since I saw the first 'Terminator' film many years ago. It is not for nothing that the Canadian born director has become one of the most important and powerful auteurs in the film industry, culminating in the simply monstrous success of 'Avatar'. The commercial takings from Cameron's trip into the world of Pandora have ensured that there will be forthcoming sequels to the sci-fi romp, and that Cameron will probably be able to pick exactly what projects he works on for the rest of his career.

Cameron's work has stood up to critical attention pretty well, considering the ubiquity and rabid commercial success of some of his movies. It's easy to forget now the extent to which 'Titanic' was absolutely everywhere, 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' was one of the most heavily promoted and hyped sequels in cinema history, and following the iconic 'Alien' movie with a much loved and lauded sequel was no mean feat. And this is before you reach 'Avatar' which simply made more money than any other film in history.

But an issue has come to light again in the last few weeks which could be of concern to Cameron's legacy. Roger Dean, who is an infamous name among prog rock fans in particular due to his work on cover art for the band 'Yes', has announced his intention to sue the 'Avatar' director for allegedly plagiarising some of his work in creating the Pandora landscape for 'Avatar'. When one looks at the floating islands and other worldly landscapes that characterise Dean's work, and compare them to Avatar's backdrop, one can see his point.

Cameron has already settled out of court with numerous litigants with relation to several of his films including 'Avatar', perhaps the most famous involving Harlan Ellison, who was successfully credited with contributing to the 'Terminator' movie via two stories he wrote for the 'Outer Limits' TV series. So can we consider this stream of complaints against Cameron to be more than a coincidence, or should we dismiss them as jealousy?

Originality has never been Cameron's great strength. Many consider 'Titanic' to be a particularly corny love story, while 'Avatar' has been accused of wearing its influences too heavily on its sleeve. The similarities between the sci-fi romp and 'Dances with Wolves' in particular have been noted. In terms of the criticism over the 'Terminator' series, though, I can't really agree that this was plagiarism in the truest sense of the word. There may have been similarities between the story of the cybernetic organism travelling through time to affect the outcome of a war between human-beings and machines and Ellison's story, but it is really a science-fiction archetype. Many Philip K. Dick stories dating back to decades before 'Terminator' reflect such themes; ultimately, producing truly original cinema, or art in general, becomes harder and harder as time wears on.

By the same token, there may be similarities between the landscape of Pandora and Roger Dean's work, but was the artwork itself so breathtakingly original in the first place? I'm pretty sure the fantastical notion of kingdoms in the clouds was established a long time, literally centuries, before any prog rock albums were released.

Ultimately, I don't believe Cameron has deliberately ripped other people's work off. He is a director who tells archetypal stories that create big emotional impacts on audiences; it is perhaps no surprise that his work sometimes resembles that of other artists.

Christopher Morris watches too many sci-fi films, has a keen interest in current affairs, and is a regular contributor to Yahoo on television, cinema, video games, technology and politics.

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