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Movie Breakdown: Avatar


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Hey guys!  Mike here.  Tony has written another story breakdown.  This time for James Cameron’s majestic Avatar.   I personally LOVE this movie.  It captured everyone’s imagination and really showed the magic of cinema.  Using live-action AND animation, James was able to create an entire world for us to marvel at.

Tons of top-notch live-action filmmakers are getting into directing animated films.  Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) made Rango, Steven Spielberg made Tintin, and Robert Zemeckis created tons of mo-cap movies (all basically animated).

Tony didn’t like this movie.  He’s taking a story stance on it.  While I agree with his opinions I still maintain that Avatar (while not being perfect) still worked because it created a world that people wanted to explore and has a simple enough story that audiences could relate.  Other big effects movies forego likable characters in favor of visuals.  I felt Avatar gave a good blend of both.

During this story breakdown, I’ll interject with my comments in BOLD.
In my view, Avatar is the poster child movie of how no matter how good your CGI and effects are, you need a top notch story to go with it.  Set aside the stunning 3-D and set pieces and you have Dances with Smurfs.

Intros are crucially important and Avatar drops the ball almost immediately.  Jake Sully is a terribly unlikeable character.  There might be some nobility in the fact that Jake lost his ability to walk while serving as a Marine, but we don't see it, so it doesn't register with the audience.

I feel Jake was a ‘vessel’, meaning he was pretty much a boring, blank character so that the audience could project themselves onto him and relate.  This was a wise choice by Cameron.  Since this is a ‘journey to another land’ type of movie, the main character serves to guide the audience into this strange land.  Wizard of Oz is a great example (which is James Cameron’s favorite movie).  Dorothy is always reacting to the crazy world of Oz as if she’s the audience.  If Dorothy, or Jake Sully, immediately understood these new worlds then we, as audience members, would be totally confused.

Everytime you create a story you need to set up the rules of the world.  If you don’t your audience is lost and confused.  So I applaud James Cameron for his choice to make Jake bland and boring (again, all other successful movies that take audiences to new worlds with different rules - Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, Harry Potter - usually keep the protagonist very simple, with 1 simple dream and 1 simple problem.  In this case Jake Sulley’s 1 problem and 1 dream is his wanting to walk again.)

Jake gets to the world of Pandora and is immediately introduced to the rather 2-D (Tony means that the character is very cliched and not written with multiple layers of nuance that a real human being would have- the character is left simple and flat to simply serve the story) marine characters and the d-bag corporate guy, Parker.  Parker represents "the Company" that's trying to obtain "unobtainium".   Since 99.9% of the bad guys in future stories are corporate d-bags, it would've behooved the screenwriters to give Giovanni Ribisi's character some microgram of likeability.  They just don't.

So we've got an unlikeable protagonist, flat marines and an obviously evil guy in charge, by default you're left to "root" for the aliens.  Unfortunately, it's not for anything they actually do.  We're simply told that because Grace (Sigourney Weaver's character) is a scientist trying to understand the natives, then obviously they are noble savages worthy of our sympathy.  Unfortunately, that's not enough.  You actually have to show the N'avi being nice and noble, not just to each other, but to the outsiders.

James Cameron is using the mechanics of the story to help make the aliens as the underdogs.  He knows that he doesn’t need to spend too much time making the aliens likable because he’s spent so much time setting up the military as evil.  Walt Disney used to say that to make the audience root for the hero you simply had to make sure the villain was very evil.

The screenwriters also don't explore all the logical choices the marines have in this situation.  Why not pay the N'avi to move so they can mine?  Why not use all their advanced technology to mine around their magic tree?  Why not just mine another part of the planet and not the spot that's obviously going to require you to massacre the natives?

This is one of those situations where you can’t be logical in a story.  If you do, the story won’t work.  Toy Story is a great example.  Not once in the film do they mention how toys come to life.    Are they alive the minute they’re created?  Or once a child touches them?  These logical questions can’t really be answered (because they’re illogical).  That’s why the storytellers never address these concepts.  I’m pretty sure that James Cameron came across these type of logic questions and chose to simply not mention them.  In storytelling, the minute you acknowledge an illogical character motivation or situation then you have to explain it fully, which eats up tons of screentime.  Best to simply ignore these ideas.

A great example of when an illogical idea needs to happen is in Casablanca.  Rick (the hero) has a nemesis (the other bar owner) who helps him for no reason later in the film (this character never would have done this but the story needed this to happen in order to keep moving forward).  So you know how the screenwriters settled this?  They simply had the character say something like “I know I am helping him.  It’s not something I would usually do.  I can’t say why I’m doing it.”  By calling it out they answered the illogic in the audiences mind.  What a simple story solution!

Jake Sully, put into the body of an alien, falls in love and goes native.  Anyone with a 4th grade education can write the rest.  And this is the biggest problem of all with Avatar: no surprises.  Revelations must come from the story and they are the surprises.  If your events are a straight line between A and B with no deviation, that's not watching a story, that's like watching a documentary of events you made up.

Avatar's action sequences are cool, but kind of boring.  Without some emotional tie to the characters, you might as well be watching a display on a slot machine or a laser light show or the final trippy scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cameron has simply set up that Jake can’t walk.  So the rest of the movie is him marveling at the new world and enjoying how physical he can be when moving around in it.  He knows that he’s got the budget to show the audience Pandora, which is the ONLY reason this movie works.  If he didn’t have the budget, this whole flick would be a giant pile of poo.  But Cameron had built an entire world and knew audiences would want to go there.  Tony is right when he critiques the script through here BUT you must know that it worked because the budget was so big.  Most stories will never get the same liberties.

To add insult to injury for all this (spoiler alert) in the final sequence, the lead baddie is fighting in a future, super-advanced mecha-suit.  So naturally, even though the suit allows him to pick up trees and crush boulders, the suit comes with...a knife.  You do the math here.  Hundreds of years to technological advancements and robot hands needs a knife?  It's just poor thinking.

If you want to see a good version of Avatar, rent Dances with Wolves.  You'll see how the events build upon one another and that the main character is taken through an emotional transformation.  CGI alone just cannot do this.

There you have it!  Telling a great story is hard, and even if you make 19 billion dollars, it doesn’t mean that your story is perfect.  James Cameron was smart enough to let the ‘exploring a new world’ plot be the primary focus.  But if Avatar 2 doesn’t have a better script (or even more amazing visuals) it won’t work like this one.  I’ve got faith in you Mr. Cameron!

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