I Have Seen the Avatar

Yes, this weekend past, my wife and I finally went to see “Avatar“.  It did not take us so long for lack of any desire to see it (at least, not on my part) but from sheer lack of time.  Between me working on my MBA, my wife staying busy with various activities, and both of us scrambling to get ready for our baby, there’s just not much “let’s-go-out-and-see-a-movie” time.

So, while I’m clearly a little late to the game (and that will be a recurring theme around these parts), I wanted to offer my “review” of the film.  Since by now, if you wanted to see it you’ve more than likely already seen it (unless you’re like me), this isn’t a review slanted toward what was good or bad, per se, but an analysis of the movie from a writer’s perspective.

First, the easy part: this movie is gorgeous.  The 3-D effect is seamless and realistic (not gimmicky feeling like the laughably bad looking “Piranha 3-D” trailer that accompanies the movie which, by the way, is a remake of a bad 1978 flick the 1981 sequel of which, ironically, was directed by James Cameron).  About ten minutes into the movie, my wife leaned over to me and whispered “Wow, this is cooler than I was expecting”.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you long to live in a world filled with 1,500-foot-tall trees and floating islands in the sky (neither idea James-Cameron-originals, but not made any less cool by their inclusion in the movie; rather, it was about time somebody made a movie with giant trees and floating islands).

I suspect, though, that my wife wasn’t expecting much precisely because the plot synopsis I gave her of the movie was so uninspired sounding.  Indeed, the movie has been called, in private circles, “Dances with Smurfs” (my personal favorite) and “Bluecahontas“.  It’s been compared to “FernGully” and, get this, “The Ant Bully“.  They all, of course, are right.  And when you get past the criticisms of the obviously derivative nature of the plot, you run into criticisms that ask whether the film is racist, another in a long line of “white-man’s-guilt-fantasies“.  And it’s certainly possible to see those dark undertones if you look for them.  On the other hand, it’s got a slap-you-in-the-face pro-environmentalism, anti-corporate message.  And yet, whatever all that means to you, it garnered a fairly impressive 9 Academy Nominations, including Best Picture (nevermind that, objectively, it has little chance of winning the top two spots).  Clearly, somebody thinks it’s a really great movie, controversy aside, and not just because it’s a pretty movie.

Is there a disconnect here? 

Having seen it, I don’t think so.  In the moment of the movie, all the criticism of the film only comes to mind if you’re looking for it.  The plot may be rehashed, but the comparisons only occur to you after the fact.  In the heat of the movie, the thought that occurs to you, instead, is “I know the good guys (the Na’Vi, Jake Sully, et al.) have to win this thing, because the good guys always win, but I’ll-be-damned if I know how they’re going to pull that rabbit out of their hat!”  Over the course of the film, you grow to love and care about the Native American analog that are the Na’Vi. 

This is so in part because the movie is so visually impressive.  But there is another factor at work here, a factor that is of paramount importance, especially in science fiction and fantasy films.  This was brought to my attention by one of the “Daily Kicks” by writer David Farland.  In this particular edition, he talked about “Avatar’s Power of Iconism‏”, by which, really, he means the power of “symbolism”.  Avatar is rife with symbolic motifs and those symbols, whether we are consciously aware of them or not, have meaning.  The Na’vi, Farland argues,

…Look basically human, in order to convey emotion. Of course, the eyes are the “window to the soul,” and so he made them larger than human eyes. Noses are unnecessary for iconic characters, and so the noses were nearly eradicated. In short, his aliens here were easily identifiable as humans to children.” 

And it’s hard to argue with that.  Would the story have resonated if the aliens were eight-legged, slug-like gastropods with eye-stalks?  Would we be having arguments about racism?  The human-like (and Native American-like) qualities of the aliens are symbolically meaningful to us.  Farland continues:

But humans also favor certain colors. When asked why he made his aliens blue, Cameron said that it was because ‘green had already been taken in all of those old Martian movies.’ But the truth is that blue is better. Seventy percent of all people will name it as their ‘favorite’ color, and Cameron needed to get the audience to accept his aliens as the good guys right out the gate.”

Farland continues, linking the Na’Vi “Great Tree” with mythical trees of symbolic importance: the “World Tree” of Norse Myth, the Judeo-Christian “Tree of Life“, and various other “Tree of Life” motifs from across many mythologies.  Trees are ancient, important symbols of life and of goodness.

In short, other than visually impressive 3-D vistas, “Avatar” doesn’t really reveal much that’s new to us, but that’s not necessarily the point.  What’s been employed here (effectively, if the box office haul is any indicator) is the same thing that’s employed in block-buster fantasy and science fiction novels: symbolic and mythological motifs that have powerful meaning and tap into our collective unconscious.  Would it have been better if the plotting and writing had been more original (while still employing those symbolic and mythic motifs)?  If it had offered some new twist on the basic premise of the movie?  I imagine the answer is yes.  But it succeeds, in part, because even without offering something new, it does what it does in part by using symbols in a way that requires a certain skill and finesse (and in part by having awesome 3-D CG).  We writers would do well to learn some of those skills as well (the ones about using symbols, not 3-D; it’s hard to use 3-D in any books other than pop-ups).

Happy Writing.