08 January 2010

On Story and Avatar

Thoughts on Avatar
Further Thoughts on Avatar


Back to Avatar again, this time to offer some thoughts on its story and its script, particularly because I keep seeing the same comment(s) about the film with unfortunate regularity.

     For an example, I quote Ken of Neth Space:
The story is terribly cliché, predictable, heavy-handed, and quite hypocritical coming from Hollywood. And it's a great movie. ... The presentation is spectacular ....
This passage effectively sums up the general response to Avatar across much of the SF&F blogosphere, and from people with whom I've discussed the film. At this point, the response itself is becoming clichéd and predictable. I see two consequences: first, the perpetuation of a misconception about Avatar's story; second, an unwillingness to engage with that story on its own terms and to consider why Cameron made specific choices.

     To see a review that does engage with the story and consider Cameron's choices, I recommend Roz Kaveney's piece at Strange Horizons. It is the most thorough and astute commentary on the film I have read yet.

     I want to suggest something about Avatar's story that might initially seem a bit addled to some: namely, that its supposed clichés and predictability in fact constitute its great strength and the source of its emotional power -- and that Cameron did this on purpose.

     The basic plot of Avatar's story is not original; the basic roles fulfilled by many of the central characters are nothing new. I do not dispute such claims. Yet the key is how we choose to frame the significance of such familiarity: i.e., we can dismiss it as mere cliché and predictability, or we can credit Cameron for consciously employing known archetypes and mythical structures for a reason.

     Avatar's unabashed reliance upon the nearly universal cycle of the hero's journey in myths and epics makes not just for effective storytelling, giving us characters and situations with which we can immediately identify and in which we can become invested, but also for a film with broad and adaptable appeal. The seeming straightforwardness of Avatar's narrative creates opportunities for a wide range of audiences to find a way into the film, whether that way is Jake himself or the romance between Jake and Neytiri or the conflict between Good (Na'vi) and Evil (humanity) or the discovery of Pandora.

     In this respect, as much as Avatar is most directly impressive for its visual beauty, it is actually all about the story. When watched (and read) closely, the film reveals how expertly it is plotted, how carefully it is shot and edited. Consider, for instance, that the first and last shots of Jake are close-ups of him opening his eyes, waking up to a new life -- first during his arrival to Pandora as a fresh recruit to the avatar program, then finally reborn as a Na'vi. Consider, too, how waking up is not just a repeated visual motif throughout the film, but how it also appears several times in the dialogue between characters (such as a scene between Augustine, Selfridge, and Quaritch) and supports the centrality of seeing and perceiving differently to Jake's development. Consider that Jake's exuberance for physically experiencing Pandora is established early, as he gets ready to enter his creche for the first time and pokes his finger into the soft gel of the bed, smiling with open wonder. Consider that everything Jake learns from Neytiri in order to become and to see as a Na'vi returns in the narrative, such as using vines and massive leaves to slow a fall from a great height or knowing how to make "saheylu" (the bond) with various Pandoran creatures. Consider, finally, the repetitions of Neytiri defending Jake and/or saving his life, each time the context slightly different and the stakes higher.

     The broad appeal and seeming straightforwardness of Avatar's story are also, I want to suggest, at the heart of the variety of reactions to and debates about the film. Here is where matters get truly intriguing, for I think Cameron has anticipated many of the criticisms against Avatar and made a film that reveals more about the assumptions and ideological investments of its critics and viewers than they do about its shortcomings or supposed hypocrisies. Many, for instance, seem to elide how subversive the film is by making the clearly American corporation and its mercenaries the bad guys, encouraging the audience to desire their defeat and applaud their expulsion from Pandora. (Pushing this reading a bit further, the deep irony of Avatar is that Cameron has delivered a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a successful violent response to the hypercapitalist imperialism of his own Western culture, and done so from the inside with the means and through the institutions of that culture. In this vein, we might attend to how some non-Western, Third World, and currently or formerly colonised peoples are responding to Avatar.) Whatever the criticism, positive or negative, Avatar is at least generating discussion, which is more than we can say for most films these days.

     In the end, the common claim that Avatar's story is "terribly cliché [and] predictable" proves most unfortunate because it in fact condemns Cameron for doing exactly what he should be doing as a storyteller: generating conflict that arises naturally from the events and from the actions and motivations of the characters, then bringing everything to a resolution and inducing catharsis for the audience. Originality takes many forms and means different things in different sociocultural contexts. Thus, perhaps Avatar's accessibility, familiarity, and (potential) universality represent its true achievement, clothed in the now very mainstream tropes and conventions of SF and aiming for that "sense of wonder" so fundamental to traditional SF.

     Perhaps this is precisely what Cameron intended.

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