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Movie Review: Avatar and a Comparison II

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.

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Movie Review: Avatar and a Comparison I

Well, I’m late out of the gate in seeing Avatar but I’m going to review it anyway. Some of this will have already been said and some not yet. I’ll look at elements of plot and Avatar sadly lacks originality there, and I’ll compare it to some stories and novels, specifically David Moles’ “Finisterra.” And yes there will be spoilers in this review.

First, what worked. It’s been a while since Final Fantasy came out and comparing these two movies is like comparing a hand beater to electric beaters. Where Final Fantasy’s textures and characters were definitely still on the animated cartoon side, Avatar has gone leaps and bounds, combining human actor shots with those of the Na’vi, and the completely CGI world. Textures such as skin and hair are realistic and seamless. Although hugely expensive, this paves the way for any story to be told. Where Lord of the Rings took us with made up but real sets, Avatar expands upon, and there is not tale, no matter how fantastical, that now cannot be told.

The world of Pandora, the human name for it, is on a large scale. Trees are of insurmountable heights. Phosphorescence gives the forest a natural night time luminescence. Creatures are sleek and deadly or light and airy. The flora is beautiful and ethereal and the Na’vi live within it and are part of it. They connect and feel their world in a very real way for they have within their hair fibril strands that can connect to, in a physical way, a few other species and the mother tree/goddess itself. There are mountains that float; that physical anomaly with gravity isn’t explained but I”m willing to let it pass. After all, the Na’vi are very tall, which could be the result of a lower gravity planet, but if that’s the case the humans on the ground should be bounding along like they’re on the moon. Hmmm.

But worldbuilding is extremely difficult. One must create everything from geography and atmosphere, to flora, fauna and cultures. It’s a lot of work, even for a god.

The animals are, well, they’re kinda Earth derivative. When the Na’vi riders appear on animals they are very horselike, down to stylized crests or manes. Why these beasts couldn’t be hippolike or serpentine or some sort of other looking beast, I’m not sure. And then there are the wolflike creatures that attack in the night, because wolves are part of the wanderer in the woods psyche; and the rhino hammerheads, all just a little bit too like Earth animals. But there are the toruk and banshees that the Na’vi tame and ride. These are like dragons and pterodactyls mixed together.

The horse creatures and the banshees can be telepathically controlled by the fibrils in the Na’vi’s hair and in long antenna/hornlike extensions on these animals. Why the Na’vi’s fibrils aren’t in their tails (which seem somewhat prehensile though they never use them this way) is weird and though I suppose these fibrils are closer to the neural network of the brain by being in the hair, it seems an unlikely spot. Even a navel seems more likely. This telepathic bonding (which one person in my writers group has likened more to psychological rape) is very similar to Anne McCaffery’s dragonriders of Pern, a SF series where  riders telepathically bond for life with a dragon. However, this is not an equal bonding but more like breaking in a horse, because when they bond with the banshees, these creatures seem to lose all ability to fly naturally without being directed by the Na’vi. Where’s the sense in taking away a creature’s natural instincts? It’s now like driving a car.

There are a few incongruous physiological aspects to some of the animals of Pandora, which seem to be mostly to make them look different but without thought being given as to why they would have this physiological difference.  The large animals seem to be six legged and yet the Na’vi only have four limbs, as do the monkey creatures. All larger species and mammals on Earth have four limbs (even whales with the tail being vestigial feet) and it seems evolutionarily sound that if the Na’vi developed with four limbs that the animals would too. I can’t quite see the benefit of an extra set of limbs for these creatures. As well, they are so powerful, the rhino hammerheads and the panther beasts, that they can tear apart or smash through giant trees in pursuit of their quarry. If this was the case the forest would look much more like a war zone than it does.

The toruk has four eyes, a smaller set behind the first two. What is the purpose of a second set of eyes set in almost the same place? They don’t see differently, or on a different spectrum and I can’t see why evolution would burden them with this extra set. No wonder they’re so cranky. The banshees and the horse creatures also have blowholes in their chests as opposed to nostrils on their heads. Why? What purpose would this serve? Fish have gills but they’re still near the head. Whales have blowholes on the top of their heads because they submerge themselves, and hippos have giant, high placed nostrils for the same reason. But blowholes in your chest when you’re a land animal? Nah. Weirdness for weirdness sake. Cameron was probably quite busy designing this but more thought could have gone into the evolutionary detail of this planet without just making it look odd to us.

So, onto the Na’vi. They are beautiful, long-limbed, probably about 9 feet tall and in touch with the world around them. They live in an idyllic culture, at one with themselves and their land. Too idyllic. The only threat are the outsiders and no society is ever that perfect. They are the quintessential noble savage, a trope often overused in stories. A blend of North American Indians and African tribal peoples, they even dress and hunt the same way. And even though they are blue with light black striping, they certainly resemble plains Indians. But they have mobile ears and tails, as well as large eyes and a catlike (tiger maybe) grace. So yes, they also resemble Tolkien’s elves of Lothlorien. Elves in space. They have a spiritual tree that holds Eywa, their goddess. This is similar to the Yggdrasil or the World Tree of Norse myth. World trees are common in many stories and are a natural extension of seeing the Earth as alive and aware on some level.

Continued tomorrow.

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Book Review: Mistborn, Maledicte & Snow Crash

Through the snowbound holidays and the worst cold I’ve had in a very long time, I did a bit of reading. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is old hat now. Written in the early 90s it still holds up as a cyberpunk, nearly futuristic world of hackers, commercialism and franchising taken to a new high. The Mafia is better organized and bigger than the Feds and everything is run by three-ring binders of rules.

Hiro Protagonist, last of the freelance hackers and best sword fighter in the world starts out as a Deliverator, a high-tech, super efficient, militarized pizza delivery guy, the franchise tightly run by the Mafia, who guarantee a pizza in 30 minutes or the Deliverator can be neutralized. Y.T. is a thrasher, a Kourier who skateboards through speeding traffic using a magnetic ‘poon to hitch rides on vehicles to various destinations. These two cross paths and fates, forming a loose knit team that aids each other in the real world and the Megaverse.

There is a virus running rampant that doesn’t just crash computers but crashes the minds of hackers. Many theories are put forth and there are some interesting bad guys with depth including Raven the ruthless Aleut. There were a few longish talking head sections when it got to theories on the virus and the early Sumerian language (as Laurie Anderson says, language is a virus) but Stephenson still managed to handle that fairly deftly. And there is a religious cult threatening to take over parts of California, run by the father of the Megaverse.

I found the novel a delight and many layered. The world was kinda dark and dire in some ways but adventuresome. There was definitely a tongue in cheek air to Stephenson’s writing that just gave me pure joy. It’s no wonder when it first came out that it was highly popular and still remains so. Hard to believe that when he wrote it Stephenson mentions that he coined the term avatar, and later added an addendum that avatar had been used in one early game. It’s worth a read and still stands the test of time.

Maledicte is by Lane Robins, who I workshopped with last summer. Granted I bought it because I met her, I have to say it was an entertaining, fast-paced, well-written read. Maledicte is the main character, vengeful, temperamental, charming and possessed by a god that should no longer exist (in the recent century the gods withdrew from involvement with humans). Maledicte starts as a feral street urchin and is honed by an ailing hedonist who knows the ways of the court.

Gilly is the faithful servant, in all senses of the word, to the old hedonist, too well trained in his role and too knowledgeable of what life would be like should he try to leave. He aids in Maledicte’s change and goals, often unwillingly. Maledicte is seeking the man who kidnapped his childhood friend and lover, Janus, bastard heir to an aristocratic family close to the throne.

The court is corrupt and overindulgent, living for scandals and gossip, willing to tear a person down if it will gain favor in some light. It’s closest  in style probably to that of Louis XIV, a bit later maybe but the fashion runs a close parallel. Mirabile is a creature of the court who killed her first husband and wants Maledicte for her own purposes. When he spurns her, she uses her considerable knowledge and skills to try and bring him down.

When Janus comes back into the scene, he is as much a creature of the aristocratic court as Maledicte, but in his own way he is moreso. He is ruthless and calculating and having got used tot he good life, he wants it all. Maledicte and Gilly are the viewpoint characters and Lane runs a fine line showing Malecdicte in a light that isn’t necessarily favorable but there is some empathy for his situation. However, if she had only gone with this viewpoint character, it may not have worked because Maledicte is malicious and murderous.

Gilly is the saving grace, the common man, with compassion to which the reader can relate. The twists and turns of this conniving and manipulative society are handled well and bloodily. Murder abounds through Maledicte and Janus’s schemes and in the end not everyone gets their just deserts but there is redemption. Maledicte’s character is refreshingly different from some of main fantasy characters in other novels. Robins created a convincing and cutthroat world.

Mistborn is Brandon Sanderson’s second novel and was as delightful as Elantris. He has created a unique world of oppressed workers called skaa on plantations and living in the cities. It takes place in a beleaguered world with a society that somewhat resembles the antebellum South. The Lord Ruler is a now inhuman god-emperor who has beaten down everyone for a thousand years. The world rains ash often, the sun is red and plants haven’t been green in centuries.

The elite of this society are the nobles, purebred and not skaa though physically they look no different, but the nobles are rich, pampered and favored by the Lord Ruler who keeps them in line with Inquisitors (whose eyes are metal spikes) and Obligators, the watchful religious class. Many nobles have special abilities, either one aspect or the full range of allomancy. They are able to burn metals that they have ingested to increase various aspects such as strength, senses, emotions, as well as sensing or obscuring the use of allomancy.

Kelsier is the only survivor of the pits, a mining operation that the Lord Ruler depends upon. He lost his wife and before was a master thief. He has been “hired” by the rebellion leader to organize the overthrow of the Final Empire. However, he has other plans on how to do that, but he keeps them secret. He is a halfbreed and a full powered allomancer, a Mistborn rather than a Misting who only has use of one of the eight metals. His friends fear that if he overthrows the emperor he might set himself up for the same position.

Vin is a waif, part of a thieving crew, who survives best by hiding and keeping attention away from herself. But she and her crew are chased by an Inquisitor who will kill thieving crews and any halfbreeds who exhibit powers. And Vin has unwittingly exhibited hers to an Obligator. She is saved and recruited by Kelsier and his crew who teach her how to use her Mistborn abilities while honing her to be a spy in the circle of nobility.

The story is one part a grand heist like Oceans 11, where there are many layers to the job, and the Lord Ruler’s treasury is possibly the draw. However, it is deeper than that, with human rights and freedoms the root of overthrowing a millennium of oppression and bringing about change. The odds are high though, because the Lord Ruler is immortal and all powerful, able to smite even the strongest allomancers without breaking a sweat. His Inquisitors are also inhumanly strong.

The use of metals for powers is unique and Sanderson gives a strong basis to it in the novel, making it a believable with a scientific aspect. Vin’s character develops and changes in a satisfying way and Kelsier’s motives are mysterious up until the last, keeping us guessing as to what he’s really after. Like Maledicte, Mistborn is a story of romance and intrigue. All three of these books were quite different and well written. The worlds had layers like most societies. Whereas Maledicte concentrated mostly on the aristocratic world and Snow Crash on the working class, Mistborn covered both parts equally. I enjoyed them enough that it was hard to put any down. I recommend all three as a very good read and worth the money.

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