Thursday, February 25, 2010

Avatar Rewrite

I've seen it again, and I think my love affair with the movie is mostly over. Something about it must still catch me, cause I still want to think about it, but mostly in reminds me of the Phantom Menace, a show with much potential that could have been really good. Here's my sketch on how it could have had a decent plot:

  • Unobtanium exists in small deposits here and there. It must be searched for, found, then quickly extracted before Na'vi or wildlife find them. There is continual low-level (though very dangerous) conflict. But there is a mother load under the mother tree: the miners could establish a continuing mine, with a defensive perimeter, save lives and equipment while getting the goods cheaply in large quantity.
  • A corporate rep wants peace. Peace is cheaper than war, after all. Military is not so gung-ho as it is cynical ("realistic"). Peace isn't going to happen, so it will be more expensive and deadly in the long run. (Since peace won't work, if you try it, you have all the expense and loss of life in that effort, and then you have the war as well.)
  • Grace and her cohorts were kicked out (as in movie). They were too excited about the sacred nature of the forest, did not come with humility, like the miners they came to take (even if only knowledge) rather than become a part of.
  • Jake is pulled between these three estates: war, peace, and investigation.
  • There is a similar conflict within the Na'vi: some aggressively hunt the humans, others hope for a less violent solution.
  • When Jake joins the Na'vi, those who don't like him try to embarrass him and trick him into doing stuff, many of which he falls for.
  • A few youthful girls, in this manner, decide to play at romance with the exotic stranger. They are caught with him, one holding his bonding thing, which causes great uproar, with Jake nearly getting expelled from the clan. Neytiri explains later: the Na'vi are like the dragons. They make a bond with but one other their whole lives.
  • Meanwhile, the conflict grows hotter. The Na'vi score an impressive victory, capturing a mining ship and slaughtering its escort.
  • Neytiri expresses her love for Jake. She wants to bond with him, but he refuses. Ultimately he cannot live there, he is dependent on the technology. He tells her to choose another.
  • Jake hears that the military has won out. Following the massacre they persuade the corporation it will be more profitable for the massive attack.
  • Jake decides to warn the Na'vi, to plead with them to leave and save themselves. The chief refuses. Jake gives details of the assault plan, trying to show how impossible it would be to resist. Chief says thank you, this will help them fight their war.
  • The Home tree is destroyed in the terrible battle, because of the greatly superior speed and firepower of their aircraft.
  • The Na'vi plan a retaliatory assault on the base, before the army goes after tree of souls. Jake, forseeing a massacre, again begs them to stop. Chief tells him, if you would help us, shut down the perimeter barrier.
  • Army reminds Jake: if they lose, he'll get to live with the Na'vi for 45 minutes until his air gives out.
  • Jake begs the tree of souls for help. Neytiri comes to him, tells him the tree doesn't take sides, then say she does. She asks to bond with him again. She does not expect either of them to live more than a day. They do.
  • Jake betrays the humans, shuts down the barrier, and fights from the inside, as human, in his wheelchair. Neytiri, who knows he can't walk from bonding with him, recognizes him and prevents his being slaughtered. The forest rises and overwhelms the humans. There is a dramatic climactic battle between Colonel, Jake, and Neytiri.
  • The peaceful faction of the Na'vi stop the assault from becoming a massacre.
  • Neytiri takes up the human Jake, and carries him into the forest. Her mother then tells them he can become one of them for real. He does.
Maybe needs a little tweaking and embellishing. I've left out details on Grace and the scientists. Trudy is worth keeping (especially if played by Michelle Rodriguez. Yow!) but will need her role reworked. But the conflict is much more gray, with bad guys on both sides, Jake is more conflicted, there's an interior barrier to the romance. The conflict is continuous and unavoidable. This is a story, worthy of the overwhelming setting.

I think I'm done.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jake Sulley

And I just figured out where I'd heard the name "Jake Sulley/Sculley." Here's the quotation that etched it into my memory:

JAKE: What would you like?
HOLLY: Jake Sculley on the rocks.

--Body Double, 1984

More on YAvatar

Apart from being annoying as sci-fi, a more serious flaw is the deification of the Great White Man. What, you say? It's a celebration of native, tribal, nature worshipers. Yes it is. But they need Jake Sculley, the White Man, to come in and save them, which he does by assuming the most sacred role that we know any individual Navi has held. And I didn't get any feeling he did this by great spiritual enlightenment, but rather by a logical calculation that this was what he would need to do to be able to lead his new people to victory. Yuck.

I don't say this all the time. I'd heard (white) people saying this about Dances With Wolves, and I didn't buy the argument. He doesn't save the Lakota, or even his village. And, in what I found a particularly compelling angle, the Lakota did not view the Americans as their Great Enemy. They had older issues with the Pawnee, and the Americans were simply a bizarre force, that people were only starting to realize was as a threat. I'm a white man, admittedly, but this carried authenticity to me.

Jake Sculley did not need to become a demigod to tell this story. He could have simply brought critical, decisive insights about the humans, given it to the Navi leaders, and joined them as one of their warriors. Little would have to change. In some ways, the giving of critical intelligence might have underscored the betrayal more than the assumption of a leadership role in the opposition. Because such a betrayal can be done with humility, it can be done to empower the Navi to defend themselves. It carries with it the possibility that Jake would unleash a power and destruction he could not control. A better, more dramatic, more plausible, and less offensive story.


So I just became one of the last SF fans in America to see James Cameron's Avatar.

Against my will, I love it. I think it is the sheer beauty of it. The story is common and predictable. The characters are fine but nothing noteworthy. The dialog is better than Star Wars, for what that's worth. Nothing happens in the plot except to set up for the climax (that is, if you meet an animal, or if one is even mentioned, it'll be in the climax, and whatever was said about it when you first met it will be the critical feature). And the world-creation is simply sloppy.

It's this last that boggles my brain the most, because in some ways it is the world that is so attractive. But time and again, I was jarred out of the story by biologically implausible features. I'm not talking about the planetary neural network, that's plausible. I'm talking about contradictions in evolutionary biology. The Na'avi don't appear to come from the same evolutionary tree as the rest of Pandoran life. They have a completely different respiratory system. They have a redesigned skeleton, with four limbs instead of six. They have one "bonding antenna" instead of two. They are the only life form on Pandora with hair.

Of course, James Cameron has never been terribly good at science fiction. In Alien the larva dissolves a vacuum suit with acid, without, somehow, venting the suit. Terminator resolves the time-travel paradox with the destiny solution, and then Terminator 2 invalidates the temporal laws that made the original work, by using parallel futures. (Which is to say, in T1, the efforts of the people of the future to change the future are the events that create the future. If you try to kill your grandmother, she survives, and meets your grandfather at the hospital). In T2, one can do something so that the future event that allowed you to be there never occurs. You can kill your own grandmother.))

Okay, these are geek issues. But there are a lot of geeks in the world. And it only takes a little thought to avoid these events that interrupt his story. I'll admit that the time travel paradox was a systemic problem that could not be resolved in the story he wanted to tell. He would have had to tell a completely different T2 to fix the problem, and I'll grant him some slack in not wanting to do that. A little. But in Avatar the problems are easily fixed without any plot impact. He could have left out the 3/4 second focus on the breathing holes of the animals, or tucked subtle breathing hole on the Na'avi (say, under the armpit). He could have had a mix of limb count among the creatures. The Na'avi could have had two braids instead of one. Simple, easy solutions. Most would add to the world. But he just didn't bother.

He made the Na'avi SO different than Pandoran fauna that I wondered a couple times during the movie if, in fact, they were a transplant from some other world. I mean, Cameron left so many clues that they didn't belong... but it turned out that their belonging was the essential theme of the story. Gee, James, that didn't work the way you wanted it to, did it?