Attention: Spoilers Ahead
By Rob Beschizza
Avatar doesn't have a bad story, but its unswerving direction does make it a predictable one. Since the internet's already hashed out the cultural angles of James Cameron's splendid epic, let's take a look at the storytelling mechanics--something he approached with a caution only $400M buys. What risks could Cameron have taken to add some surprise, without spiking the straightforward narrative?
Here's five ideas to get us started...
1. Jake actually betrays the Na'vi
Our hero's journey is smooth sailing: Jake so badly needs his destination that there's never much ambivalence about the journey. This lack of internal conflict manifests when the Na'vi tribe rejects him: his only betrayal of them is the plain fact of his original mission, which he'd had abandoned in any case. Wasn't it obvious that he might be telling others what he'd learned about the tribe? As the first "warrior" dreamwalker, no less.
If Jake instead pursued an explicit and timely opportunity to betray his new friends, his 'going native' afterward would have been a powerful moral turning point rather than a faint point on a 'character arc.'
2. Give his rival some balls
In Dune, off-worlder Paul Atreides is forced to kill to gain acceptance with the locals when his own kind finally forces him into the wilds. In Avatar, however, Jake only has to show up on a fancy ride. Instead of becoming a nonentity after their earlier aikido warmup, Na'vi chief-to-be Tsu-tey could have drawn a line in the moss: I represent the caution and tradition of my people, and you'll have to beat me down to change and lead us. If Jake has to defeat, even kill an ally who hates him, it tarnishes his character--but Pandora is red in tooth and claw, after all, and it is what he's fighting for.
3. The savages show how smart they are
Jake masters the bow and horse. Why not let one of the Na'vi surprise everyone by getting to grips with some of that weird sky-people tech? And perhaps even do a little betrayal of his or her own.
4. Show the colonel's hidden depths
You can't just let Steven Lang take a role like that and then bury him in cartoon villainy. Colonel Quaritch is evidently a spiritually blasted former soldier who went private-sector after tiring of fighting dirty wars. As Lang says in an interview, "I didn't play a villain; I played a man who is doing his job the best way that he can." But he isn't given much space for that nuance by the script. For example, he knows that his brief is to protect a blood diamond operation, not patriotic duty, and yet in his climactic battle with Jake, he asks him how he could betray his people. What he really means is, "How could you not be a soldier, son?"
In the movie, Jake simply snarls. A retort would be sweeter. "Is that what they told you when you quit Venezuela?" does the the trick. The Colonel knows he's lost, after all, and getting irony thrown in his face offers him a chance to choose his own doom--without any need for the leaden pathos that often comes with such turnarounds. Consider the many suggestions that Quaritch is the only human on Pandora to feel at home there in his own body--he is much more like the Na'vi than he'd like to admit.
5. Kill Carter Burke
That brings us to the disinterested corporate apparatchik in charge of the whole show. He's the real villain of the piece, who gives the natives none of the respect offered them by his soldiers and scientists, at least until his decisions' moral consequences are thrown in his face by Ripley.
Wait... wrong movie. In any case, Mr. Cameron had the right idea the first time around. Kill the slimeball--or better yet, let an alien do it.
After I read Monika Bartyzel's December 27th piece n Cinematical, 'Avatar' and the Death of Storytelling, my instinct was to explain in some detail why this was wrongheaded.
Four days and a third view of the film from start to finish later and I am less inclined to do so... because the argument Bartyzel makes is so lame and unsupportable by anything other than the hubristic urge to piss on what's popular, it is not worth my time or yours. Somehow, we are supposed to just buy the premise that the storytelling is weak... and discuss from there.
To give the author and those who wish to dance naked in the warm drool of the headline their due, the headline is more clear in its argument than the wandering, unfocused article. Bartyzel seems to suffer the child-journalist's difficulty (and I have no idea how old or experienced Bartyzel is... the name has never registered with me before) of confusing personal disappointment with the objective failure of others. Worse is the rhetorically moronic trope of "if they had only made an effort!" Oy.
To wit: "(How the frak can James Cameron have cooked this story up for a decade, waiting for technology to catch up with his vision, and not want the story to be killer?"
"What could Cameron have done? It seems all too simple -- workshop the script, get advice from trusted names, put similar effort into all aspects of the film."
Or, hey, he could have made Avatar into a blog and just pulled stuff out of his ass instead of making the movie.
Do I think that Cameron should have found someone he trusted who would have told him that some of the clinker lines in the film could have been smoothed down? Yes. But a half-dozen pieces of overly gung-ho dialogue is not "the end of storytelling."
If you actually look at Avatar clearly, thinking seriously about the storytelling, it is as complex as any film Charlie Kaufman has ever written. What it is not - and I think that this could be be and should be seriously considered by writers who chose to think about film seriously - is particularly oblique, as many of the films that "serious" critics choose to love are. But what's funny about that is that if you really start to think about what's been set up in Avatar, nature perhaps being hard-wired in a literal way, Cameron is throwing out as big an idea as any studio film has offered in years.
Avatar is a genre movie. Absolutely. And when it isn't thrilling the audience, it is usually reaching for emotion, not intellect. But it is also a master class in story structure. The weakest parts of the first act - all the Basil Exposition moments - are all paid off in a big way in the third act.
I defy any of the bashers to come up with a major element of the movie that doesn't actually make sense in the context of the movie. I'm sure there are a few minor ones... there always seem to be a few, even in the most highly regarded films. But this is not Charlie's Angels: Full Frontal or Bad Boys II or even Transformers, #1 or #2, randomly inserting action sequences that never quite fit the context of what minor story that is being offered.
What Avatar is not is as dark and mysterious as The Dark Knight. There is no evil character as strong as The Joker. Our hero and heroine are not as brooding and focused as The Batman. And the moral questions of Avatar are not as clearly stated or as yes/no as The Dark Knight. But all that said, the story structure of the movie is more successful than TDK at delivering on what it promises.
Everyone and anyone should be welcome to prefer one kind of discussion of ideas at the movies over another. I am in no way suggesting that Bartyzel or anyone else needs to bow to Avatar, either for commercial or aesthetic reasons. (And the "we are the rebels under attack by big bad money" shtick from the bashers is unrelenting.) But attack what you really don't like. Please don't feel compelled to so grossly overreach as to attack a complex and working structure - the columns holding the visuals up - in order to try to bring down the whole thing.
Avatar delivers more, I would argue, than people realize, not because the storytelling is weak, but because audiences - however smart - have a hard time seeing the story for the digital trees.
Let's just take a part of the third act of the film.
At the start of the act, the humans who have taken the side of the Na'Vi against industry, the military, and indeed, even humans in general, move forward without discussion and without a plan. They have changed sides 100% and behave as a native would instinctively. They need to get out of the enemy's stronghold and to get back to what is now their home.
What makes this interesting and complex is that just one scene before, this group was still working with the other humans to try to mediate. Without dialogue explaining this, the audience understands what's happened. And the first thing this band of New Na'Vis does when free, also without explanation, is to take - as best they can - control of their avatars into their own hands and away from the belligerent humans.
Once they make this transition, Cameron flips the entire movie. Jakesully finds a way to become a leader again and brings the military insight that if united, the indigenous population could fight off the intruders. (Ironically, to my argument, the existence of other tribes isn't introduced until this scene... one loose thread.) Suddenly, the Sky People are on the defensive... suddenly they are rationalizing not that they have a mission and hate those in their way, but that if they don't attack first, they will be destroyed by those "blue monkeys," who are organizing only because the Sky People trying to annihilate them.
Cameron then flips the movie again, introducing the concept of a nuclear weapon, with the threat to bomb out the second most important place for the Na'Vi (the white tree).
And Cameron flips the movie one more time with the arrival of nature to defend itself.
This represents four major power shifts in the third act alone. None of it is casual, random, or even confusing. It is clear to the audience without being spelled out. They feel it. And that is a real achievement in story telling.
Again... I am not saying that the film is flawless. I am not saying that box office gross = quality or social importance or anything else. All I am saying is that the movie is hitting people in a real way and to try to take that away by claiming, without a real argument, that it's "just visuals" is irresponsible and dumb.
Those of us who write fot public consumption about movies always have a choice. We can try to figure out what is going on with audiences when they latch onto a particular film. Or we can judge them as we judge the movie and try to argue why those stupid people have been suckered into thinking they are enjoying themselves. I guess there is a third choice... bowing to whatever is commercial... quote whoring on whatever level. And I often think the "I'm so much smarter than them" arguments are a response to those quote whore types... and completely forget that real people find real enjoyment in these films and there may be a reason that we have not yet considered.
I have no idea how anyone can stand the Twilight movies or the Sex & The City movie... but they don't only pay to see these films... they LOVE them. I got it a little more on Mamma Mia!. And I still feel fine about saying these films SUCK without having to demean those who love them. Yes, me saying it will anger and/or embarrass some who love them. But that's just the gig.
What is NOT the gig is arguing that Twilight is the end of cinematography or that Sex & The City was the end of feminism or that Mamma Mia! is the end of singing by male leads or, for that matter, Meryl Streep acting without mugging.
Heck... if you aren't intellectually curious, that's okay too. Maybe that's your niche! If it is, please disregard all I just wrote. So sorry to get in the way of your malevolent fun.
By Monika Bartyzel
As people gush about Avatar, allowing the beauty to make up for a storyline that seems to leave most fans disappointed, I wonder: By buying into this whole love-the-pretty-visuals bend, are we helping to end the art of storytelling? Actions have a reaction. Money talks. Merge those two together and it seems like we're sending a loud and clear message to Hollywood that we don't care if the story sucks as long as everything looks pretty. It would certainly account for the neverending barrage of crappy, big-visuals, big-action features.
Of course, it's not so easy to just ignore a film like Avatar. It's been buzzed about for eons. It has infiltrated television shows and plastered its message near and far. We've got to see it. The curiosity is too high. At the same time, however, how the frak can James Cameron have cooked this story up for a decade, waiting for technology to catch up with his vision, and not want the story to be killer? How can he not at least work that script into a form that can at least begin to rival the visuals it's matched with? It seems like an insult. Sure, as Todd Gilchrist pointed out, the man isn't known for his stories. But they usually don't have the push, the marketing, and the time that this one did. While waiting for that technology to meet your needs, why not get some trusted opinions and hone the script? Make each word, each moment, and each scene parallel the beauty of Cameron's cinematic eye -- imagine what the film would've been then.
The production budget was enormous. It was a project that took a decade to complete. If we can't expect 10 years to bring us solid storytelling, one of the most basic essences of cinema, that doesn't bode so well for Hollywood's cinematic future. Long-gestating projects are a different cinematic beast than something like Transformers, which got a sequel quickly to capitalize on the box office, which was meant to be nothing but goofy spectacle. At least those popcorn flicks have the excuse of speed and fluff.
What could Cameron have done? It seems all too simple -- workshop the script, get advice from trusted names, put similar effort into all aspects of the film. But there's also the cinematic world at large to consider. Do you think we're approaching the death of storytelling, and how can we avoid it or fix the problem? Must we rob ourselves the pleasure of beautiful films in protest? Thoughts?