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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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Damn Those Archetypes

Here I thought I was getting farther along the road (knowing that road goes on forever) of perfecting my craft, that of writing, when I find out I’m way way behind the times with archetypes. I thought there were those Campbellian constructs of hero, child, mother, trickster, etc. But now the bottom has dropped out of my little world to find that new archetypes have supplanted the old.

Curse you, David Moles, curse you. If I hadn’t done a spin through his site http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ (because he made a comment and I met him recently in Kansas) I would still be living a relative life of bliss and ignorance. Ah, if only…

But now I know there is a huge world of new archetypes out there shoving aside the child, the mother, even the hero. I already knew about the Noble Savage but didn’t know about Magical Negroes and Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I have to admit to having read David’s blog, trickling through the comments and then shooting over to Strange Horizons to read part of the article on Magical Negroes http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20041025/kinga.shtml Okay, so I only skimmed parts, being that I’m supposed to be at work and all.

But I read enough to go, Eeek! I have a magical negro story, fitting all five of the commonest attributes. All of them. Geeze. But my story is different. Really it is. Well, maybe, kinda, sort of. Sigh. At least I can make the main character black too and then it will only match four points. It’s one of those borderline fantasy literary tales and I’ve never sold it because it’s not really wowzer different enough. But maybe I have another reason now. Hmm.

Briefly, about that insidious David Moles. I was in Kansas for the novel writing workshop and he came in for the Campbell Conference. His SF story “Finisterra” was nominated for the Sturgeon award. It tied for first place with Elizabeth Bear’s “Tidelines.” I had the opportunity to read Finisterra. It’s an amazing “world” both odd and majestic, yet sad with the brutal reality that afflicts our world too. He’s written a tale of a conflicted “world” and protagonist. I’m not sure I would want to live in that place or that time but there is a ray of hope at the end. There are interesting parallels to our world of course and the whaling and seal trade. But it’s obvious why it won the Sturgeon as well as was nominated for the Hugo.

Then I snooped David’s site some more and found that he co-edited Twenty Epics and All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. Zeppelins, Finisterra…I see a correlation. But the little hind brain filing system whispered, remember you sent a story to one of those anthologies long ago. It wasn’t accepted but in the small world of publishing I now knew where I’d seen that insidious name before.

When I have time I’m curious to go back to David’s site and check out his research paper: “I know nothing about them, nor I don’t wish to”:The memsahib and the myth of the lost empire. How interesting is that, and it makes me wonder what David Moles does when he’s not an insidious Lemony Snicketty kinda guy. He seemed nice enough in Kansas.

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Writing: Campbell and Sturgeon Awards

Friday night was the presentation of the Campbell Award for best new novel and the Sturgeon Award for best new short fiction of the year. They were presented in Lawrence, Kansas as part of the Campbell Conference and the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association) conference. David Moles won the Sturgeon Award for his story “Finisterra,” as well as Elizabeth Bear for her story “Tidelines”

The Campbell Award gave third place to Ken MacLeod for his book, The Execution Channel. Second place went to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball, and the winner was Kathleen Ann Goonan for her novel, In War Times.

Saturday continued the conference with a SF book sale at the KU library, and readings and signings at the Oread bookstore. Readers included David Moles, Kij Johnson, Frederik Pohl, Robin Wayne Bailey, Karen Joy Fowler, James Van Pelt and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Fred Pohl, the last of the Futurists (which included Kornbluth, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and others) claims that he will no longer write a collaboration with another author because they end up dying. He finished a book with Arthur C. Clarke but Clarke died before the last fifty pages. The book, The Last Theorem, will be released within the next few months. Pohl is quite a funny guy and it was a delight to hear him read, as well as the other authors.

The conference ended the novel writing workshop. Saturday night, we had a party as our last goodbye to each other. it was a good workshop and some really great people. I’m excited to start working, really working on my novel and restructuring it. Maybe I can get it done this year.

James Van Pelt said some interesting things about writing regularly. He once kept trying for 1000 words a day but couldn’t always manage it so then he’d fall behind and not write for days on end. Stephen King and other writers might do 1000 words a day or more but they don’t always have other jobs. Pelt realized that the 1000 words was the barrier and sat down with what he’d be happy writing in a year and then divided it by the number of days. He realized that he only needed 200 words a day. That breaks down to less than a page and even if tired or too busy, a very doable number. It increased his output and he’s never missed writing a day since.

I think I’ll be trying that and tonight I sat down to look at a story I wrote recently. Using some of the new depths to writing I learned these past two weeks, I rewrote it and added a thousand words. I’ll try writing at least 200 words on fiction every day.

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