A World All Their Own

In the film Avatar, director James Cameron creates a futuristic tribal culture complete with its own language, rituals and religion.
ByNancy Lutkehaus

Filmmakers are storytellers, but they are also architects and anthropologists. They must create whole worlds in which their stories can unfold. And the worlds they create must be coherent and believable, be they a representation of our own society or an entirely new universe. Few filmmakers, however, have had the time or resources to do so with such attention to detail as James Cameron, director of such blockbusters as Titanic, Aliens and the Terminator films.

During the summer of 2008, I briefly experienced this aspect of Cameron when his associate, producer Jon Landau (a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts), contacted me. Cameron wanted to consult with an anthropologist who had worked with so-called “primitive” tribal groups about his new film project, Avatar.


Avatar movie poster. Credit Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Intrigued, I arranged to go to their studios — a sprawling network of offices, rooms crammed with computer monitors and electronic equipment, and a cavernous sound stage housed in a former airplane hangar, part of a complex near Playa del Rey where Howard Hughes constructed his Spruce Goose airplane.

There I met Landau, a short, affable man dressed casually in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. He proceeded to tell me about Avatar — Cameron’s new sci-fi thriller set on the imaginary planet of Pandora some time in the distant future. One aspect of the project especially caught my attention. Early on, Cameron had hired a linguist from USC, Paul Frommer, to create an entirely new language to be spoken by the Na’vi people, the inhabitants of Pandora.

Frommer, who earned his doctorate in linguistics from USC College and is now professor of clinical management communication in USC Marshall School of Business, told me that Cameron had come to him with a few Polynesian-sounding words he may have picked up in New Zealand. He asked Frommer to incorporate these into a new language — complete with its own phonetic system, morphology and vocabulary — for the Na’vi to speak. Since Cameron envisioned the Na’vi to be a sci-fi version (9 feet tall, incredibly skinny and blue-skinned) of the so-called “primitive” tribes anthropologists once studied in places like Africa and Papua New Guinea (where I had done fieldwork), Frommer said he created a language for them that was “spiced” with what to most westerners’ ears would sound like “exotic elements,” such as ejectives and velar nasals.

On my second visit to the studios I met Cameron, a tall, sandy-haired man not given to small talk. He had also hired L.A.-based choreographer Lula Washington, renowned for her work that incorporates elements of African dance and music. She was choreographing several of the ritual ceremonies performed by the Na’vi. As Cameron, Washington and I discussed aspects of the Avatar script, such as the coming-of-age ceremony that the film’s protagonist, Jake Sully, undergoes, it became apparent to me that Cameron was thoroughly familiar with much basic anthropology and had read widely about non-Western religious beliefs and practices.


Jake Sully, the film’s protagonist, meets his avatar. Photo credit Mark Fellman, WETA, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

When I finally viewed the complete film, it made sense to me why Cameron was interested in talking with an anthropologist who specialized in non-Western tribal societies. He is not only obsessed with details but also, not surprisingly, fascinated with expertise — both his own and that of others — especially when it bears directly on his own projects. Cameron is like a collector of fine art who sees himself as a connoisseur, and my function was less that of a dealer who brings rare objects to the collector, but rather that of a curator whose expertise provides the imprimateur of authenticity.

The lush primal world of Pandora and the exotic culture of the Na’vi revealed in Avatar include many of the basic elements of what used to be called “primitive” societies — animism, a coming-of-age ceremony and test of manhood, a religion based on a supreme (maternal) tree spirit. It is truly a 21st century elegy to a lost world — as well as Cameron’s warning to our own.

Nancy Lutkehaus is professor of anthropology, gender studies and political science, and chair-elect for the Department of Anthropology in USC College.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine’s Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue