Expanding a little bit from this blog’s normal focus. I’m going to look at pop culture events, give my two cents and try to give some writer-useful analysis starting with the biggest pop culture explosion in quite a while, Avatar. So warning: spoilers, opinions, and some tasteless humor ahead.
So James Cameron is crowing and deservedly so. He can bask in the now sure Oscar bids and his Everest sized mountain of money. I blogged earlier about the movie here. I liked it but didn’t love it. I pointed out that breaking the top 50 all time Box Office is becoming a more common occurrence. However the amazing success of the film requires a deeper look into it especially for screenwriters. It’s important when dealing with a film as successful as this to gain some perspective hard as that is.
I think Avatar is a good movie but not a great one. I don’t think 10 years from now it’s going to ripped apart on Youtube by some guy doing an impression of Ted Levine from Silence of the Lambs. I also stand by my original assessment about the visuals which I found good but rather generic especially coming from Cameron. And let me stress that I don’t believe it’s all hype. Hype and marketing get you only so much after that the audiences keep coming because there is something in there. So what are the audiences getting out of Avatar?
I believe the major part of Avatar’s appeal can be found in this clip from Kill Bill Vol. 2. The first bit about why he likes Superman.
I think that sums up my opinion of Avatar perfectly except for the part about the mythology being unique, see here and here. But it definitely has the perfect mythology for a sci-fi blockbuster. It has perfectly idealized mythology. Pandora just isn’t a wild planet. It’s a perfect wild planet. The Na’vi aren’t just aliens but perfectly idealized aliens. The wilderness and the “savages” are more idealized than in Dune or even Dances with Wolves. The Freman are just as likely to kill you for your body’s water as adopt you. And in Dances With Wolves you were just as likely to run into badass Indian Wes Studi as good guy Indian Graham Greene. There’s certainly nothing like the ambiguity of Emerald Forest or At Play In the Fields of the Lord at work here. This clip from the Daily Show (keep watching to the last part) pokes fun at the Avatar as Religion idea but it’s true. Avatar presents an ideal for audiences. The Na’vi and Pandora are like the Force in Star Wars, the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, the black monolith in 2001, Camelot in King Arthur. The films and franchises that become cultural touchstones have that element of hope and perfection and give their audiences the possibility of happily ever after. Even The Godfather presents an idealized myth about the mafia, one that combines the joys of retribution with the heartwarming father/son story.
The problem is once these films hit as big as they do they spawn imitators. And those who try to imitate the mythology are doomed to failure, simply because Avatar or Star Wars or The Godfather have already been done. They were there the firstest with the mostest. More 30 years on and no one has created a new Force. Nobody’s even trying any more. It really is a hokey idea when you think about it. But in the Star Wars films you’re given license to not think about it and just accept it, same thing with Pandora and Avatar. (Incidentally this is why the midi-chlorians speech in Phantom Menace is the biggest clusterfuck in the history of storytelling. What was mythic became a case of the space flu.)
A MYTH FOR OUR TIMES
Avatar would have bombed in 2003 or 2004. In ‘04 enough of the American public still supported the war in Iraq to re-elect George W. by a million votes. Flashforward to ’09 and George W. and “shock and awe” are punchlines. Timing is everything.
But still, this isn’t a case of Blue State vs. Red State. Avatar is doing well across the board despite wearing its political affiliation on its sleeve. I suspect the fact that Avatar is being released by the same company that owns Fox News has something to do with keeping right wing backlash to a minimum but it has to go further than that.
Americans love the underdog never more so then when times are tough. I think more than the shift in the political winds, the economic downturn really helped to prime the American audience for a story about an underprivileged tribe of aliens under assault by vastly superior forces. Rocky and Star Wars were big hits during the harsh economic times of the mid 70’s. People feel that they’re under siege by superior forces and want to believe that they can overcome. It’s not just any underdog story that we cling to in times like these it’s the anti-technological underdog. We hear people talk about how we’ve lost our way, we’ve trusted too much in technology, that it’s time to get back to basics. You don’t need a gym full of fancy equipment, you need a slab of beef to pound. It’s ironic that the two biggest sci-fi movies in history would have an almost Luddite message at their heart. Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer to use the Force to guide in the critical shot. Jake Sully relies on the quasi mystical Earth Mother of Pandora to repel the attack on the Tree of Souls. Faith is rewarded.
But Avatar is also cleaning up overseas even more so than it is over here. Sure the film’s $500 million domestic gross is terrific but it’s the foreign box office that’s putting it in the history books. This heralds a lot of important shifts in the entertainment landscape. Friedman is correct, the world is flat. And it looks like going forward that movie audiences are going to be flat as well. The worldwide audience is now the name of the game and Avatar is proving to be even more pleasing to the foreign audience. I don’t want to go all Glenn Beck and say Avatar will be playing at Taliban recruitment drives. But at the same time I’m willing to bet that the obviously non-white Na’vi battling a military force composed mostly of Caucasian Americans is a pretty big draw to a lot of overseas audiences. And as much as the movie is criticized for being another “white guy leads the savages” story, there is a very important difference. In Avatar Jake Sully literally becomes a Na’vi. He sheds his Caucasian body and takes on the body of a blue skinned, feline featured, ten foot tall humanoid with a tail. He is not John Carter of Mars. He is not a white guy who is better at being a native than the natives. He physically becomes one of them. It’s a slight but important difference. Did it make a huge difference with foreign audiences? I can’t tell for sure but my guess is that they wouldn’t have embraced a movie about a white guy teaching backwards blue aliens how to fight. That poses an interesting question. Will studios release more films with non-white leads to attract a larger worldwide audience? Maybe the key isn’t non-white leads but non-ethnic leads, aliens and robots. Optimus Prime has no earthly ethnicity neither do the Na’vi. Are these the new international stars? As a sci-fi and fantasy fan that’s actually an appealing prospect.
AVATAR AND THE ABYSS HAVE MORE IN COMMON THAN THE LETTER “A”
Idealized sci fi mythology is something Cameron has tried before in the one and only film that could be called a flop, The Abyss. That film really represents the turning point for James Cameron the moviemaker.
Up until that time Cameron had made low budget films that look like they cost a fortune. The original Terminator was made for just $1 million, Aliens for $10 million. Since The Abyss Cameron hasn’t made a film for under $70 million and frequently is breaking the record for Most Expensive Studio Film Ever Made.
And it wasn’t just the budgets that changed. The Terminator and Aliens are both very dark and gritty tales with just the slightest glimmers of hope. The Abyss was just as intense and violent but the overall tone was very different. Hope, faith and love were in the forefront. “You have to see with better eyes than that,” said Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. That line could easily fit into Avatar’s script. After that Cameron movies had love coming out of their ears. T2 was the heartwarming adventure of a boy and his pet Terminator, True Lies was about Arnold’s love for his wife and daughter as much as it was about battling terrorists, and then there was Titanic. At the time Titanic seemed come out of left field from Cameron, but if you look at the emotional tone of his films after The Abyss, it makes perfect sense.
The Abyss was also Cameron’s biggest failure as a writer. The story is a complete mess. The aliens were idealized to near Christ like proportions, there to provide wisdom and perform miracles for a skeptical humanity. Yet they weren’t wise enough to prevent the sub from crashing in the beginning causing the deaths of hundreds of sailors. They were so idealized that Cameron zen-ed completely them out of the main story. The aliens are only there to provide a little bit of catalyst. Nearly everything that happens on board the undersea station would have happened regardless if they had been around or not. Nothing in the characters really connected them to the aliens or the major action of the story. It was a grade A screw up as far a script went and not even Cameron’s most ardent fans can adequately defend it.
That translated into Cameron’s one and only flop as the film, which cost nearly $70 million to make, barely took in $90 million at the worldwide box office. That sounds like a $20 million profit but remember theater chains keep up to two thirds of box office grosses.
But they say you love all your children, the ugly ones most of all. I think Cameron has shown the love for The Abyss by essentially remaking it as his last two movies, the two biggest hits of all time. He had to break it into two parts because by then even he realized that the pieces didn’t fit. The aquatic disaster/love story became Titanic and the idealized aliens, now fully integrated into the story, became Avatar. And with today’s box office triumph his biggest career failure has been erased and completely reversed.
JAMES CAMERON PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A FRUSTRATED SCI FI NOVELIST
For a writer, however, idealization goes against every good instinct we have. Perfection is, dramatically speaking, boring. The source of drama is conflict, the source of conflict is flaws. Drama began in ancient Greece when the poets started taking ancient myths and giving them the critical eye. Stories told around the campfire to the young kids became dramas performed in the amphitheater for the adults. Thus began the process of serious writing. Essentially you start with a catchy idea, a modern day myth, and then through hard work, process, craft turn that into a story. When a teenager or young person makes his first stabs at being a writer he often doesn’t get much further past the myth making part. That’s because craft and process take a while to develop. But youth being impatient they rush their new masterpieces off to magazines and book publishers only to get the inevitable rejection. Most will get frustrated and quit. Some will persevere and achieve some ability.
Then there’s James Cameron who became a filmmaker.
I’ve heard that Terminator was based on a story Cameron wrote when he was 17. I heard the same thing about The Abyss. And about Avatar. It wouldn’t surprise me. At heart they are all science fiction stories written by a 17 year old, high on myth, not always very good on actual drama. I can picture him sending off copies to Analog and Amazing stories, only to get the form rejection letter. I can see him vowing to show these narrow minded editors that his stories weren’t just magazine worthy, they were multi million dollar blockbusters.
Today Cameron could probably get an original short story published in whatever magazine he so chose as long as he could stand the pay cut. But if he submitted it to the slushpile under a false name, he’d still receive the same form rejection letter. Fortunately for him, movie scripts are an entirely different animal. Movies aren’t read, they’re seen and heard, they’re performed and directed. You can be a terrible writer and still have a good cast and director bail you out. Cameron is not a bad screenwriter, in fact he’s pretty darn good. But sometimes he reverts back to that 17 year old who’s all myth and no process. According to his bio The Futurist, Cameron doesn’t really write a script so much as he assembles it after getting his cast together and hearing what they have to contribute. That can produce some grand stories. Robert Altman used a similar technique his entire career. But Cameron, as The Abyss demonstrates can completely lose his grip on the story.
The script for Avatar is its biggest weakness. Even its admirers admit that. It’s nowhere near as messed up as The Abyss and the first act is pretty good. But it’s underwritten at its most crucial spots.
The mythology of Avatar is perfect. It’s nearly impossible to screw up when you have such a famous template as Dances With Wolves. In this regard one of the major criticism against the film is actually one of its greatest strengths. Avatar is Dances With Wolves with aliens. Dances With Wolves is one of the most famous movies in the world. You know what’s going to happen before you even see Avatar. The audience didn’t buy tickets to this movie to be surprised by the plot. They went to see Dances With Wolves with aliens and that’s what they got. Sounds simple but incredibly many a flop has failed to deliver what it promises (See Stealth, or rather don’t see Stealth. An AI fighter/bomber goes wrong and has to be brought down by human pilots? Nope, that’s not what happens)
The WAY Avatar delivers on its promised story arc where the script falls short. Cameron has never been a particularly sophisticated story teller. He’s blunt but often quite powerful. But by even Cameron’s own standards there’s something missing storywise. The first act is the best written section. It establishes Pandora, the human compound, Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi’s villain characters make an impression, and best of all it gives Sigourney Weaver’s Grace a tremendous entrance. Jake Sully is a very subdued hero. This is a complaint that’s leveled against every major studio blockbuster. They want their heroes to be everymen, usually they end up being at least a little bland. Things proceed. But once the first act is over and we enter Pandora something very important gets left behind. The drama. The conflict. Specifically the choices the characters are forced to make. Or rather they make the choices and there is no force. That's the problem. Throughout the story there are major decisions for the characters. The Na’vi choose to let Jake Sully into their clan, Grace chooses to keep Jake on her team, Jake at first chooses to share information with the bad guys, and then chooses to fight for the Na’vi. All very important decisions. We’re shown these people carrying out these decisions. But we never see them wrestle with making them. We get a little bit of Jake’s internal struggle but by and large the major turning points are given the yadda yadda yadda treatment. Cameron may not be Peter Morgan, but he didn’t use to give such short shrift to character development. None of this has hurt the film at the box office. It may even be a plus with foreign audiences who are used to losing at least a little bit of the plot through translation. I hope though that doesn’t become a trend. I can too easily envision studio heads pruning the narrative of their tentpole pictures so nothing confuses the foreign markets.
I don’t think the script was underwritten deliberately on Cameron’s part. I think he just got caught up in the six legged horses and the helicopter lizards. The movie is 160 minutes as is and there’s apparently at least another hour that they cut out. Another trait of the 17 year old beginning sci-fi writer, he often gets lost in the minutiae of his own imagination.
So what would Avatar look like if it had been written by an experienced sci-fi writer in full command of his craft and not an enthusiast with more myth than drama in his literary toolbox? The answer is District 9. Avatar and District 9 tell basically the same story, human oppress aliens, human ends up defending aliens by becoming one. But there the similarities end. Where Avatar went for myth and idealization, District 9 went for drama and conflict. It took the difficult road at every turn. Instead of beautiful blue skinned aliens it gave us ugly insect like ones. Instead of a culture living in harmony and beauty, the Prawns lived in a trash filled shanty town (provided by the humans of course.) Instead of giving us a noble good hearted hero like Jake Sully, it gave us Wikus Van De Merwe who looks and acts like he walked out of a South African version of The Office. In short the writers of District 9 gave themselves challenges where they could have taken the easier path. When experienced writers talk about “killing your darlings” this is exactly what they mean. The result, District 9 is no where near as mythic as Avatar. People who bought tickets for District 9 had no clue what they were going to see exactly. I remember it took me a good 5 to 10 minutes before I realized that yes, Wikus was going to be our hero. District 9 doesn’t have a comforting ending or philosophy to share with the audience. By the end it’s quite possible that humanity is fucked. But it is one of the few original screen stories that could stand beside Heinlein and Asimov without apology. And if you really want to be a good WRITER, screen or prose, District 9 is the model you should emulate.
NO THE VISUALS DID NOT BLOW ME AWAY
Let me say that I am a movie super user. I see just about everything, in the theaters if I can or on DVD. In my original Hollyblog post I said that I wasn’t blown away by Avatar’s visuals. I’m not.
The film is not shot in anyway that accentuates the 3D effects. The foreground is almost completely ignored. There’s hardly a moment that really gives you an impression of how large Hometree is or how high up the floating mountains are. There’s certainly nothing that feels like you’re really on the back of a giant flying bird. Modern 3D, the mo-cap, the CGI, they’ve all been used for nearly a decade now yet you hear people, especially critics who should know better, gush about these things like it’s the first time they’ve seen them.
Maybe for a lot of people it IS the first time they’ve seen them. You look at the numbers coming in and there has to be a large number of people for whom this is a completely new experience. And even people who go to the movies don’t actually go to the movies. They treat it like their living room. Hey people, this is what you’ve been missing while you gab on your cell phones!
But for me, I don’t see this film as being the great technical leap forward people are crowing about. Pixar has been making movies entirely in a computer for decades. Some may argue that they weren’t as detailed as Avatar but that was deliberate. Pixar’s shown they could texture their characters and backgrounds much more realistically, they chose not to because it wasn’t appropriate for the aesthetic style of their movies. You could argue that Avatar is the first CGI drama where Pixar has only been making children’s cartoons. I’d say you really haven’t been paying attention to Pixar. Its stories are more adult than most so called dramas. People have attitudes that are completely backwards and based entirely on appearances. Up is cartoony therefore it is for kids, Avatar is realistic looking therefore it’s for adults. But try watching the first ten minutes of Up with your spouse or your parents or grandparents. Avatar doesn’t even come close to addressing those themes.
Most interestingly one of the comments to my blog, a fan, didn’t even bother to defend the film against my charge. Instead he said that was the point. Cameron deliberately held back his normal visual fireworks so it wouldn’t shock the audience or take them out of the story. Hmmm. Could be. Sort of like McDonalds serving billions of bland hamburgers around the world. I hope this doesn’t also become a trend. Movie studios clamping down on visual virtuosity because it might offend delicate eyeballs on the international market. I doubt that will happen. Directors are the big swinging dicks of Hollywood. The town may put up with writer’s being forced to deliver the 120 page equivalent of a cheeseburger. Tell the directors they can’t cut too fast or use their crane shots and there will be blood on the streets. Also, I’m a super user and as super user I can say that if a movie has to resort to CGI and 3D to suck you into its story and its world then it did something wrong.
But I don’t think this was a marketing ploy on Cameron’s part. I think he simply wasn’t at the top of his game in this instance.
Hear me out. Cameron’s game is considerable. If he never made it as a director he could have been one of the best DP’s in Hollywood. There are very few people as good as Cameron when it comes to lensing films, and certainly no one better. This man, if he didn’t invent the cinematic language of the modern action film he at least compiled it. Every action film since Terminator has used that film’s visual vocabulary. Michael Bay, Simon West, Jan De Bont, John McTiernan, they all should be paying royalties to Cameron for borrowing so much from his early work. T2 might be the pinnacle of his craft as a cinematographer. Nearly every frame is perfectly shot, lit, and composed.
Having said all that, you wouldn’t know the same man shot Avatar.
It’s not that it’s poorly shot, it's generically shot. The action in Avatar looks like it could have been shot by Michael Bay or any of the other action specialists. Now granted as I said, he is the man who invented the modern action movie, but Cameron has always been at the forefront of pushing that cinematic language to its fullest. James Cameron has created some the greatest action set pieces in film history. Yet Avatar’s climax easily ranks on the bottom of Cameron action scenes. Yeah I even put the mini sub chase in The Abyss ahead of the assault on the Tree of Souls.
The element of real danger. Ever since Terminator Cameron’s films have been marked by a physicality born of real jeopardy. Stunt crews have wanted to beat him up. This is the man who dangled Jamie Lee Curtis out of helicopter and drowned Kate Winslet. In the past he’s pushed his films’ budgets by recreating gigantic practical sets. The Titanic had sunk a million times on the big and small screens but before Cameron no one had ever seen a near life sized mock up of the bow tilt all the way in the air with a hundred stunt people clinging to it. Cameron risked his own life often on his own shoots, nearly dying himself a couple of times. And when he wasn’t on set he’d drag race Gale Ann Hurd on Mulholland drive.
So what happens when you remove that element of danger? What happens when it’s all in the computer? You can still see some of that physical exertion in the screen, but this time it’s muted. There aren’t any of the hard edges or wince inducing impacts that are in T2 or True Lies. I think by his nature Cameron isn’t a guy to sit around directing a blue screen crew for six months straight. For somebody like Peter Jackson, playing around with computer images all day is perfectly okay. He can’t even shoot on a real ship because he gets seasick. But I picture Cameron sitting their quietly and wondering if there’s anyway to throw his blue suited dot covered actors out of a real plane. Mo-cap that, bitches! This was probably the safest, easiest shoot James Cameron ever had. But I imagine to him it felt like playing a bunch of videogames.
I kind of feel like the guy who said Dark Knight “was okay” or that Star Wars “wasn’t as bad I thought it would be.” Whatever I think or experienced in the theater a gigantic number of people love Avatar and you can never fully explain love. Where does it really come from? Why this and not that? If you could come up with a rational explanation then it really isn’t love. I’m not going to begrudge the lovers or the beloved. So go ahead and bask James Cameron and Avatar fans. You’ve given the world a new myth for our times.