I know it’s been some time since James Cameron’s Avatar was released and there has already been a lot of discussion on that topic, but instead of complaining I want to take a moment to see if we could have made a more compelling film out of it.
I was in a discussion on GamersWithJobs focusing on action in film and how it can become meaningless. Perfect examples are the car chase in Matrix Reloaded and the Pod Chase in Phantom Menace. They simply last too long, way longer than any meaning they have to the characters or the plot. Instead it becomes one giant technical piece, both in direction, cinematography and computer animation. On a technical perspective they are both rather impressive, but in terms of story-telling they begin to lose all meaning.
The big battle in Avatar, where the human marines go in and blow down this sacred tree to the Na’Vi, is supposed to have meaning. The problem is it is covered up by the fact that the “villain” is portrayed in as few dimensions as a Captain Planet villain and the paper he was drawn on. He sips from a cup of coffee as if he’s doing nothing more than filing away some reports at a 9 to 5 office job.
This is honestly the part of the film that drives me up the wall. James Cameron did not create an interesting conflict. It’s not even that he just made Dances with Smurfs. It’s that he told a story that basically says “military and capitalism suck! Let’s ditch all our technology and be one with the universe again!”
Completely ignoring just how fucking brutal all those ancient civilizations were to each other. Whatever, let’s make a movie about white guilt!
First, let’s replace “unobtanium” with something a lot more realistic and something we can even understand. Something like uranium, an element that could use bad science to explain why everything on Pandora glows, how the damn tree got so big, and also why we’d be so interested in mining it. If there was more naturally occurring uranium under that tree than we have on Earth, then we would understand just why it was so important. Sure, uranium can be used for weapons, but we also use it to power nuclear reactors. The sort of thing that I imagine would be in frequent use in a space-traveling future. It could also become your typical metaphor for oil, only with an actual resource that exists. This would cause the viewer to think in relevant, real-world terms, considering if we have another potential fossil-fuel situation in our future.
This would also be the first step in making the human side of the conflict a lot more sympathetic. What bothered me the most about Avatar is that both sides were stubborn and intolerant of the other. Humans wanted that mineral resource and the Na’Vi wanted their sacred tree untouched. The only “attempt” at negotiation was instead presented as the military trying to fool the “savages” into giving up something precious. Any character taking the form of a Na’Vi body was instead focused on how great and amazing this non-Human existence was, providing no progress in negotiations. It was still, all in all, two stubborn sides refusing to compromise.
In a modern world torn apart by ignorant, closed-minded groups of all kinds, be they religious or atheist, anarchist or fascist, I feel that a film addressing two differing sides trying to compromise and failing would have carried much more meaning. Instead of making the General a Saturday morning cartoon bad guy, make him a sympathetic character that doesn’t want to resort to violence. Make him a man the characters can understand, a man that believes when talk has failed only action prevails. Old fashioned, if you will.
To me, it would have been a much more meaningful moment if the General had looked upon the burning tree with a look of anguish on his face. His teeth grit as if holding back the urge to shout “You could have prevented this!”. The tree wouldn’t have just been a symbol of tyrannical power, it would have also been a symbol of what happens when two unyielding forces collide until someone gives. A much more meaningful lesson that works in situations of political conflict and day-to-day conversation.
This would have also made for a more interesting final conflict. Instead of simply waiting for the big bad villain to get his comeuppance, you’d be watching as two sides with relevant perspectives are forced, once again, to battle until something gives. A fight between two characters that do not desire it is always more entertaining, even enthralling, than having one character seeking nothing more than blood.
Avatar could have been a tragedy, a story about how refusing to compromise and work together ends in pain, sorrow and loss on all sides. Instead, they made a really, really big budget Captain Planet visits Jurassic Park fan-fiction with guns and mechs. The moral lesson is written for kindergartners, and instead of having a meaningful conclusion the “good primitive people that have it all figured out somehow” end up kicking us big bad technologically advanced capitalists off the planet.
What a piece of shit.