Can We Talk About Avatar's Weirdly Dated Slang for a Minute?
Several months ago, well before I'd seen Avatar, I argued that James Cameron was underrated as a dialogue writer. Sure, there were a few corny lines in Titanic, but there were plenty of justly famous ones, too -- in fact, Cameron's whole writing career is studded with now-iconic bits of dialogue, from "Hasta la vista, baby," to "Get away from her, you bitch!"
One thing I was surprised to find when I saw Avatar, then, is a lack of big money lines (and what few could have been are garbled by lead Sam Worthington). Worse, though, is the preponderance of truly dated slang that rings such a discordant note in the otherwise persuasively imagined future. I can believe James Cameron when he says this film took so many years to make, because I'm pretty sure he hasn't touched the screenplay since he wrote it while listening to Spin Doctors in the mall in 1995.
I know that things that were once cool can be cool once again, but I have trouble swallowing that in the year 2154, Jake Sully would taunt a toothy Pandoran beast by yelling, "Who's bad?" Still, perhaps it's a character clue that would explain why Sully gives Dr. Grace Augustine her due by asking the passe rhetorical question, "Who's the man, Doc?" or why he utters "Crap!" when things get rough. The worst slur someone hurls in this film? Calling another character "numbnuts." I'm pretty sure that in the sequel to Avatar, the Na'vi will have invented jams and slap bracelets and find the U.S. military "truly bogus."
On the one hand, the fact that this jarringly dated slang made it to the screen is revealing. It just goes to show you that you do not question James Cameron, even if you're Sigourney Weaver, you have a 20-year-old daughter, and you're pretty sure the kids stopped talking like this after Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was canceled. Avatar may be a benchmark of cinema for years to come, but if I'm already cringing at this decidedly un-timeless slang, how will it sound 30 years from now?
On the other hand, I suppose it's quaint and therefore just a little bit refreshing, if only because it's rare to see a megabudget movie that clearly wasn't rewritten on the fly -- or rewritten at all, for that matter. Cameron's vision of Pandora is uniquely his, for better or for worse: blue, beautiful, and totally bodacious.