See Jan. 18 for Part I of this review.
Now a story or movie being derivative is not necessarily a bad thing. All stories build on those that have gone before, going back to the oldest tale ever told around a fire about heroes or how the world was made. Nothing is truly original. However, being cliché and stereotypical, done to death is a big problem.
Several people have compared Avatar to Dances With Wolves and Ferngully. I just watched Ferngully to see the comparison and it is pretty close. Avatar’s plot was unfortunately, extremely cliché. I found I was getting irritated at points because of the overused, predictable and shallow storyline. Humans want the resources (land, ore, food, etc.) and must get the indigenes out of their way. The indigenous people resist because this is their way of life and spirituality. The big bad corporation doesn’t care. They see only resources and money. The military thugs are the brawn behind the corporation and never seem to have anything more than vengeful tactics. There’s always that one guy that makes it his mission, who’s hard to kill, who’s vengeful, hateful, and stands in the way of decency and empathy.
There is the guy that goes native, who suddenly starts to see the world through indigenous eyes, and of course falls in love with the most desirable local gal. But the local gal is promised to the big tough warrior of the tribe who justifiably sees new guy as a threat. A power struggle ensues and the two guys establish the pecking order while the new guy gets the girl. Evil corporation and army thug move in, uncaring, and rape the land/people. In this case they want this rich mineral called unobtainium. Oh puhleeze. It could just as well be moremoneyium, hard togettium, makeusrichium. It’s as original as Darth Sidious. But the plot… New guy shows the locals how to come together and defeat the bad guys. Often he is better than any of the locals could be and gains their respect. It’s so cliché that it is absolutely Ferngully though the corporation is mostly missing in that (but logging is the bad guy) and the new guy doesn’t really get the girl in the end.
Here are a few ways in which Avatar could have been different. Jake Sully might not have been a stooge for the army to begin with. That he’s absolutely untrained and getting to use a very expensive avatar that only experienced xenozoologists, xenoanthropologists, xenobotanists, etc. are using is completely unlikely in any context. Security detail; why do they need it now? Not likely. They are there not only to study the people but to try to work with them. I do find it hard to believe that in this future anybody would be allowed to rape and pillage any new culture they found without some sort of analysis and diplomacy brought in first. We’re talking whole new worlds here.
The military and corporate guys calling the Na’vi savages and monkeys is such an obvious play on the audience’s emotions that it annoyed me. Jake might have fallen for Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver and one of the few characters that’s not totally predictable) who spurns him. He might not have got the local girl who still goes with her warrior guy. It would have been really nice if Tsu Tey, the warrior leader, was the one who tames the toruk, but asks for Jake’s help. The Na’vi aren’t stupid and know their planet better than anyone else (something that Jake seems to have to tell his people and us, to liken it to the resistance of Afghani rebels on their own turf). They should be able to figure out that they can toss spears and arrows into whirling blades themselves, as well as knowing shooting at metal is a waste of their arrows. Thankfully the women can be warriors too in this.
Maybe Jake dies at the end, sacrificing himself for what he now knows is real and good. It just would have been better not to have him be the hero of his adopted people. But then the outsider story is also a very common one. Hello, Dances With Wolves. And the evil corporation, who of course somehow never sends in negotiators to find a way to mine the ore without even having to move the people is so thin it drove me nuts. Just how many movies have I seen now with the military guys just being unthinking thugs with no diplomacy? Oh yeah, remember District 9? Evil corporation and military thugs. So two-dimensional. Sigh.
Now I’m going to compare Avatar to “Finisterra,” a novelette by David Moles (http://www.chrononaut.org/) which appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction Dec. 2007. “Finisterra” won the 2008 Sturgeon award for best short fiction and was nominated for a Hugo award and it has stuck with me enough after two years because it was memorable and different.
“Finisterra” like Avatar is not so much a tale about white man’s guilt (as has been argued about Avatar) as it is one about humans plundering a planet or nature and killing things to take resources, something that is still happening on Earth today. We are losing species of flora and fauna at an alarming rate and killing our planet (fewer trees, more ozone) to the detriment of ourselves.
Finisterra takes place in a future where women don’t have a lot of rights in the Muslim controlled sectors and our main character, a minority Christian, is a husbandless woman who must try to survive where she can. She takes an illegal job, as an aeronautical engineer (already a job women aren’t allowed to practice) on the planet Sky. She sees the “continents” Encantada and Finisterra (the main languages at this time are Arabic and Spanish), which are floating bio-masses, both animal and land that travel in the breathable atmosphere around a poisonous gas giant. Finisterra is as big as North America, peopled, like Australia was, with refugees and criminals who are now in their sixth generation.
Soil, trees and fauna accrete to the zaratan, the monstrous whalelike creatures, which are being poached for bones and skin, killing off a whole ecosystem. Bianca is a small figure, not a hero, not living in an idyllic world, who must make or be forced into a moral decision. Her world/universe is not completely saved afterwards, and the struggles will continue but maybe it’s marginally better. Moles managed to relate this far future story to several items of import in our world today. Religion and the limiting of people’s rights/jobs/professions, religious bias of one religion over another, poachers and pirates, laws that don’t work, destroying an ecosystem for the sake of profit, and the common man/woman–what can one person truly do against a whole system?
Avatar is a hero tale, in some ways as old as those of Hercules and Gilgamesh. “Finisterra” is about you and me, people who can’t always be heroes, who must struggle to survive. And yet it touches on our fears of religious zealotry. It touches on those images of slaughtering whales, but not even for the whole animal. It touches on destroying something that can change life for thousands of people. Avatar touches on the latter as well and in that sense it is a message we need to hear again and again, but it’s truly our governments and our corporations who need to hear it and I don’t think they will, or they will choose to ignore it. But maybe as people move into positions of power, they will remember these tales.
It’s taken me a while to realize the true brilliance of David Moles’ story because of these delicate interweavings, messages for people of this age yet about of the future too, without hitting us over the head. (Would that I could learn this so well for my own writing. I doff my hat to you, David.) Avatar, by becoming so simplistic in plot and culture does hit us over the head. The evilness is premeditated and yet often such evils are more complicated than just “I’m evil, bwahahahaha.” Events happen for misguided, often good reasons and sometimes cascade out of control. I would have liked to see more depth all around to Avatar’s story.
If Avatar wins best screenplay in the Oscars it will be because people were dazzled by the very cool smoke and mirrors, as seems to have happened in the Golden Globes. So it goes. I see that there will be another Avatar in 2012. Cameron would have done better to have hired David Moles or his like to write the script, and if not that, at least someone to look it over and slash the clichés fom it. Let’s hope he does that for the second movie.