AVATAR: watching as a writer


When my writing focused on screenplays, I watched three to four movies a week (not reading a lot of books during that time), analyzing each one for narrative structure, character development, story, plot, and dialogue. I’ve re-focused my writing to prose and I’m reading more books, but I continue to watch movies. Over the weekend, I finally saw James Cameron’s Avatar.

Absolutely no question in my mind about whether Cameron knows how to use the visual medium or not. This movie demonstrates his firm grasp of it. At times, the visual effects almost overwhelmed me for their beauty. The aliens, while humanoid, were different. The other indigenous creatures reminded me, however, of Jurassic Park, which underscored the ancient and primitive elements. I wondered if Cameron equated those elements with “innocence.” The Na’avi are a hunter-gatherer civilization that has not yet discovered agriculture, at least from what Cameron presents about them which is very little beyond their spiritual beliefs. But then, he presents very little about the human side of the story, painting us as militaristic and profiteers.

As much as I enjoyed the visual aspects of this movie, and its strong narrative structure, the story was standard fare with one-dimensional characters that at times acted cartoonish. The military leader became a caricature. For a 162-minute movie, I expected a LOT more.

First of all, flesh out the characters so that they won’t deteriorate into caricature. Give them more than the desire for new legs or the desire to protect her people. Psychological or emotional flaws add interest and depth and give the viewer something to relate to. I realized that the one character I could relate to in this story was Grace, the scientist. I wanted to relate to the aliens as much as to the humans. But there’s only their spiritual beliefs which turned into a pro-environmentalist message by the end. I don’t enjoy preachy movies.

When characters remain one-dimensional, the story suffers. As a plot-driven story, this movie excelled, however: human soldier/patriot signs up for adventure, meets alien race and culture, falls in love with alien princess, fights his own people in order to save his love’s culture and planet from humans. At the end, I wondered if Jake really knew what he was getting himself into, and I wondered why he made the decision he did. Was it because of his legs? By the end of a movie, there should be no question about the protagonist’s motivation. What a disappointment. Same old–same old. If you’re going to go all out visually and you believe in what you want to achieve, why not make it a character-driven story that’s original?

Last, I’m bored with the human-dominated, we’re so technologically and in every way more advanced, story of human-“alien” contact. I think the environmentalist message could have been powerful if the Na’avi had not been primitive hunter-gatherers. By not making the two sides equal in development and culture, all this movie does is underscore the same old message without offering anything new, provocative and intelligent in the way of problem-solving and approaches. What if the Na’avi had been more developed and their development, because of their spiritual beliefs, had begun environmentally friendly and green? What would their society look like? What kind of technology would they have? What would their energy source be? Maybe they’d tap into the energy of their planet or their sun. It would have been far more fun to match the wonderful visuals with an original story of an original alien civilization that was equal to ours, with strengths and weaknesses just as we have in our civilization.

So, while not a bad movie, Avatar was a visually-gorgeous disappointment. Back to reading…..

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One response to “AVATAR: watching as a writer

  1. My brother was just panting at the chance to work on one of Cameron’s movies, i.e., this one, for the sole purpose of the opportunities for the visual effects. That being of course his profession. The list of “Visual Effects by” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0499549/fullcredits is huge. (And a kilometer or so down is Kevin Andrew Smith.)
    You get employees wanting to make movies just for the fx, as much as people wanting to see them for that reason.

    I think that single-mom in rural Uzbekistan and I are still the only two people on the globe who haven’t seen it. While I don’t make a point of seeing everything Kevin does (Freddie v. Jason just didn’t appeal to me), this actually is on my to-see list. Sigh…

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