Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Creative Tropes in James Cameron's "Avatar"

[Spoiler alert: This essay contains spoilers for the movies AvatarLawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the novel and movie Dune and the five-book fictional epic The Belgariad.]

James Cameron's Avatar has, as of this writing, grossed over $1 billion worldwide, and has clearly set a new bar for science-fiction special effects and cinematography.  Cameron has proven himself in the past to be a master of delivering believable military sci-fi even when incorporating obvious fantasy elements -- see Aliens and Terminator 2, for example.  Cameron wrote and directed Avatar.  It is now very clear that direction is Cameron's true strength, because Avatar's story fails on multiple levels despite using rich, versatile tropes.  In this essay, I will illustrate in greater detail some of Cameron's creative trope failures in Avatar and provide examples of the same tropes executed better in other works.

Tropes are not bad things to have in a story.  To the contrary, tropes are tools for the crafting of stories, and the quality of a creative work often depends on the author's skill in using tropes to build an engaging plot and vivid narrative.  A trope is a well-defined concrete or combination of concretes that can be used to convey a complex abstract idea because a reader is likely to recognize the concrete and draw the "right" conclusion about its abstract meaning in the story.  For example, there is a trope called "Kicking the Dog."  If a reader must learn that a character is evil, the writer can convey that understanding by showing that character kicking a dog.  Only evil people kick dogs, therefore that character must be evil.  It takes seconds and requires no dialogue, making it an effective and efficient trope.

The power of tropes as tools is that a writer using them to convey abstracts using those simple concretes is able to make an entire story "connect" with the reader on a familiar and emotional level even on a first reading or viewing.  For example, the Boy Hero is a trope, and so is his adversary, the Dark Lord.  Entire forests have fallen to produce pulp of the worst sort imaginable to tell stories of Boy Heroes opposing Dark Lords.  The creative works that used the two tropes well, however, have been very successful.  Luke Skywalker opposes Darth Vader.  Frodo Baggins opposes Sauron.  Harry Potter opposes Voldemort.  Belgarion opposes Torak.  Good execution sets those works apart from the slush pile.  This good execution comes from clear, flavorful prose, well-realized sympathetic characters, well-developed settings, and the adept use of supporting tropes such as the Quest, the Talisman, the Wise Old Mentor, having the Boy Hero fight some Minibosses, and finally having the Boy Hero's Five-Man Band infiltrate the Dark Lord's Evil Hideout and destroy the Dark Lord once and for all.  (There are even humorous tropes to explain why the Evil Hideout sometimes collapses when the Dark Lord dies: apparently, the Dark Lord was a "Load-Bearing Villain.")  Because the tropes are well-executed, we as readers care about Harry Potter surviving Voldemort's machinations.  We feel the despair when Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father.  We exult in Belgarion's Flash of Insight that leads to his victory over Torak.  In essence, well-executed tropes make a story enjoyable.

Avatar uses some of the most versatile tropes in existence to tell its story.  The overall plot is an omnibus trope called the "Mighty Whitey" story.  In that trope, an everyman hero (which is itself a trope) from a civilized society journeys to the frontier (also a trope) and encounters peace-loving natives (another trope), wins them over by his bravery and good-heartedness, and eventually becomes their leader.  Often, the hero marries the chief's daughter (another trope), who comes to love the hero despite being promised in an arranged marriage (another trope) to another man in the tribe, typically the tribal tough-guy (another trope).  The antagonists are usually imperialist/colonialist exploiters (another trope), the society from which the hero hails.  The natives reject imperialist technology, instead adhering to timeworn customs and traditions (another trope).

In Avatar, our everyman hero is Jake Sully, a disabled ex-marine.  The frontier is Pandora, a moon orbiting a planet five light-years from Earth.  (Obviously in the Centauri system.  That would have been nice for them to mention at some point, considering an Earth-like planet could plausibly exist there in reality.)  Jake works for RDA, a mining company that has built a base on Pandora to mine "unobtainium," a room-temperature superconductive mineral native to that moon.  The native blue-skinned alien Na'vi live in a village situated atop "the largest unobtainium deposit for 20 clicks in any direction."  Jake's science group operates artificially-grown Na'vi bodies called "avatars" by a wireless mind connection otherwise similar to what we saw in The Matrix and Surrogates.  This allows the scientists to walk among the Na'vi as though they were the same species.  It is up to the science team to talk the Na'vi into moving away from the mining site; if they fail, the mining company plans to destroy the Na'vi.

On a mission to the dangerous Pandoran jungle, Jake encounters Neytiri, the Na'vi chief's daughter.  Neytiri knows Jake is not a true Na'vi but an avatar driver from among the Sky People (the humans).  She berates Jake for his ignorance of how to live in harmony with nature, but is secretly impressed that he faced the perils of the wilderness without fear.  The other avatar drivers are scientists, so the Na'vi tolerated them but never accepted them into Na'vi culture; since Jake is a warrior, the Na'vi embrace him as a brother.  Neytiri falls in love with Jake and marries him, casting aside her former betrothed, Tsu'tey.  Now that Jake is "in" with the natives, mining company security chief Colonel Quaritch promises Jake an expensive spinal restoration if Jake delivers enough recon intel on the Na'vi village Home Tree to ensure that the mining company's attack will succeed.  Jake complies, and the attack works -- the Na'vi are forced to retreat to their ancestral home valley beyond the Floating Mountains, and they reject Jake for betraying them.

For no explained reason, that isn't good enough for the mining company, and Colonel Quaritch launches another attack to wipe out the Na'vi once and for all.  Jake's science group splits from the mining company and sets up shop near the Na'vi hideaway, and Jake subdues a Pandoran dragon, fulfilling an ancient prophecy and regaining the trust of the Na'vi people.  Jake learns that the Na'vi religion actually works (it is based on a series of bioneural bonds between sentient organisms everywhere on the moon) and uses it to rally the very wilderness to fight for the Na'vi.  Among the floating mountains, the Na'vi and the Sky People do battle, and the Earthicans are soundly defeated by the combined natural might of Pandora.  The Na'vi permit the science group to stay, but expel the miners.  Jake becomes the Na'vi chief.  And... curtain.

The tropes used in Avatar should immediately evoke parallels to their usage in other (and often better) stories.  Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, Dances With Wolves, Disney's Pocahontas, and The Ghost and the Darkness are all examples of essentially the same story told better.  A closer look at the tropes in play and how each story executed them makes this clear.

First, the use of "unobtainium" as the name for the superconducting mineral is particularly grating.  Unobtainium is the name of the trope!  In a story, Unobtainium is whatever rare or valuable substance is needed to make the story world's Applied Phlebotinum (advanced technology, magic, faster-than-light space travel, whatever) work.  The archetypical example of the Unobtainium trope executed perfectly is the "spice" from the novel Dune.  In Dune, the spice is necessary for faster-than-light space travel, giving rise to the in-world saying "He who controls the spice controls the universe."  The entire Dune plot is concerned with which faction will win control of the planet Arrakis, the only known source of spice.  For Avatar to actually use the word "unobtainium" to name the story's Unobtainium is as though a writer named the Dark Lord something like "Darkus Lordius."  It is as though Cameron's writing staff, adapting his broad ideas into the final screenplay, did as many writers do and used "unobtainium" as a placeholder on paper for an actual flavorful name to be invented later, but Cameron never got around to naming it and the editors didn't notice.  Leaving it as "unobtainium" would have been fine in a comedy or deconstructive/irreverent story, but Avatar is a "serious" story.

Second, Cameron fumbles the Evil Imperialist/Colonialist Horde trope.  Back in the days of the Virginia Company, sure, with the limitations on oceanic travel, it might make sense for a private corporation to be the first to encounter and make political overtures to a native population.  But 150 years in the future, it strains credibility to suggest that there would not be any governmental presence handling the diplomatic side of the equation and ensuring that the mercenaries under Colonel Quaritch do not simply commit genocide and have done with it.  At a bare minimum, public officials would entreat with a sentient alien species as a means of assessing the degree of likelihood that the aliens will attack Earth!  Maybe there is some reason the mining company is operating free of restraint -- perhaps the Earth is embroiled in civil war, or has an imperialist regime in power, or perhaps the Pandora mining is a criminal enterprise and Earth is looking the other way because it needs unobtainium so badly (at $20 million per kilogram) -- but we do not know, because the story never says one way or the other.  Even if the story won't feature these things as central plot elements, proper worldbuilding demands that they be answered one way or the other, and when they are, it becomes trivial to include enough fine detail in the story that an observant reader/viewer can deduce the big picture.

Third, Cameron bungles the General Ripper trope.  Colonel Quaritch, an evil and bloodthirsty villain, moves forward with his attack on the Na'vi village, destroys it, and then moves on to further attacks against the Na'vi even though the unobtainium deposit is free for the taking now and the Na'vi have moved like the mining company wanted them to do!  War is much more expensive than mining -- no rational corporate decision-maker would have approved the attack on the Na'vi ancestral valley now that the critical deposit of unobtainium was available to be mined.  So who was supervising Quaritch anyway?  Not the corporation, and clearly not a government.  One individual seizes unchecked power, endangering a trillion-dollar enterprise, and everyone just goes along with it?  Even hardcore trained soldiers know that they are oath-bound to refuse an illegal order, yet only one of hundreds does so.  Gregg Easterbrook cannily observed, in explaining Cameron's fumble of this trope, "I find the colonel with absolute authority a lot more unrealistic than the floating mountains."

Speaking of which, fourth, Cameron bungles his worldbuilding even as he "gets the science right."  If unobtainium is a room-temperature superconductor, then it actually does make sense that mountains veined with the mineral and located in a region of magnetic turbulence could float.  So why did Cameron not just have the mining company mine unobtainium from the floating mountains, where no Na'vi live?  Because then there would be no plot, of course.  A viewer is meant to infer that the mountains are too far from the base, because the original deposit the mining company wanted was the only one "for 20 clicks in any direction."  The mining company can travel five light-years and spend trillions of dollars but won't send a drill more than 20 clicks away to get what they came for?  Unopposed, and in staggering quantity?  Those floating mountains would be worth more than the cash value of all other human wealth combined.  The mining company should have been more than happy to pull up stakes and go gorge on low-hanging fruit.

And speaking of wealth, fifth, Cameron's corporation badly carries the Idiot Ball by fighting for access to a deposit of unobtaininum while ignoring their own science team's discovery of the workings of Pandora's bioneural technology, a prize likely to be worth orders of magnitude more, in the long run, than the rocks!  Even the most fungible ore is only a raw material resource, while applied technology is an end product of resources, design, and labor.  Commercially speaking, it isn't even close.  That bioneural technology would have changed the human condition forever.  The script fails to explain in layperson's terms why this is important, instead giving Sigourney Weaver's scientist a few throwaway lines about the bioneural data transmission capability of the ecosystem.  The viewer is left watching scenes of the Na'vi praying to "Eywa" without understanding the impact of those scenes until much later, if ever, when the viewer realizes (or reads in an essay like this one) that Eywa was a real biological being who communicated through the bioneural network with most of the plants and animals in the area of the Na'vi homeland.  The story instead suggests that there is divine magic in play, instantly breaking suspension of disbelief for even moderately skeptical viewers, and leaving the viewers identifying the wrong Idiot Ball carriers.

Sixth, why did Cameron even include Tsu'tey in the film, if not to blindly conform to the arranged marriage / tribal tough-guy trope?  There is virtually no plot interaction between Tsu'tey and Neytiri and Jake -- Tsu'tey is merely there to show Na'vi looking badass and riding their hexahorses and soulbirds.  When Neytiri marries Jake, Tsu'tey isn't happy about it, but there is no real plot consequence to Tsu'tey.  He ends up dying in battle the same as if Jake had never shown up.  This is a clear trope fumble.  Dances With Wolves is the perfect execution of the tribal tough-guy side of the trope, because Wind In His Hair would never have rescued Lt. Dunbar from the brig if Dunbar had not earned Wind In His Hair's respect as a Sioux and a warrior.  Wind In His Hair is hostile to Dunbar at their first encounter, but ends the story shouting to the mountaintops that Dances With Wolves (Dunbar) is his friend, and will always be his friend.   Pocahontas did well addressing both aspects of this trope on a simpler level: the jilted Kocuom's jealousy at losing his betrothed to John Smith was the impetus for Kocuom's anger during the final confrontation.  What could have been a stare-down became real peril, and Kocuom made the danger credible.  Further, the English settlers did not fully respect the natives until they recognized Kocuom as the tribal analogue of Smith.

Seventh, why was Neytiri the chief's daughter?  She could have been any Na'vi tribeswoman and the plot would have changed little.  Cameron made her the chief's daughter because the trope said so, but he failed to understand the storytelling purpose of the trope.  Throughout human history before the Enlightenment era, an individual's rank in society had a tremendous impact on what the person was able to do or say in virtually any social situation, and whether that person's role would be credible at all.  Where mating and social relationships were concerned, the ranks of the individuals involved resonated with one another, accruing those individuals prestige or reducing them in shame, as applicable.  This trope was used perfectly in Dune, when Paul Atreides chose as his lover Chani, who was daughter of Liet-Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist and "Father of the Fremen."  Paul is the scion of House Atreides, and the standing of the House among the other Houses of the Landsraad depended on his marriage.  Paul enters into a political marriage with Imperial Princess Irulan, highest-ranking woman among the Landsraad, accruing House Atreides much prestige.  Thus, in order for Paul's love story with Chani to matter, Frank Herbert knew he would have to make Paul's Fremen lover somehow outrank Irulan in some non-overt but relevant way.  Though Chani's rank means nothing to the Landsraad, it means everything where Paul and the Fremen are concerned, leading to the novel's brilliant final passage.  In Avatar, Jake Sully's conquest of the dragon, a feat accomplished only five times in Navi history, was what made him the Na'vi leader.  Earlier, when Jake first tried to warn the Na'vi village of the impending attack, they barely acknowledged him despite his having mated with the chief's daughter a short time before!  Marrying the princess doesn't cut it anymore with the Na'vi; one has to fulfill a historic prophecy to earn their regard.  Tough room!

In fact, eighth, those demanding Na'vi are depicted as peace-loving natives in harmony with nature.  This particular trope shows up everywhere in fiction lately, especially with the ascendancy of environmentalism*.  Reality disagrees: most civilizations at the tribal stage throughout history have been violent, despotic, warlike, intolerant savages.  For every Sioux or Navajo that are sedate enough to entreat, colonists encounter a dozen Apache, Comanche, Zulu, Maori, or Aztec tribes full of skilled, agile warriors more than happy to slay the newcomers and, in some cases, dine on the remainder.  The environmental aspect is even more laughable, as indigenous tribes' impact on their environment has historically been extensive despite not including iconic talismen of modern pollution such as diesel fuel and nuclear waste barrels.  Animal excrement, skinning/slaughtering offal, and fire often despoiled the land around a tribe's encampment, while human filth and overfishing despoiled nearby waterways.  Tribal camps moved constantly because the buildup of detritus served as a breeding ground for disease.  None of this happens in Avatar.  The Na'vi live in literal harmony with the surrounding nature, communicating bioneurally with it via the bonding receptors.  The great Na'vi stone structures at their ancestral homeland exist with minimal impact upon the countryside, while the Earthicans strip-mine everything they can reach down to the dirt.  Cameron's failure to Do The Research takes a world where he Got The Science Right and ruins it with a bunch of environmentalist make-believe.

Ninth, the name of the trope is sufficiently explanatory: What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?  I will quote Easterbrook once again:
What does "Avatar" build up to? Watching the invading soldiers -- most of whom happen to be former American military personnel -- die is the big cathartic ending of the flick. Extended sequences show Americans being graphically slaughtered in the natives' counterattack. The deaths of aliens are depicted as heartbreaking tragedies, while the deaths of American security forces are depicted as a whooping good time [...] Films that criticize the military for its faults are one thing: When did watching depictions of U.S. soldiers dying become a form of fun?
As Easterbrook correctly notes, it is definitely Not Awesome.

In fairness, Avatar gets some things very, very right.  As mentioned above, the floating mountains are scientifically plausible, and Pandora's location is reasonable conjecture and not mere fantasy.  The special double-rotary-winged craft flown by the Earthicans, as well as most of the military hardware featured, are realistic and well-imagined.  Cameron was already known for eschewing such fantasy tropes as death rays, laser blasters, and lightsabers, relying instead on good old-fashioned bullets.  Similarly, Avatar's characters travel to Pandora in stasis in a journey that spans five years, a plausible development used in place of Applied-Phlebotinum-enabled faster-than-light travel, warping, "folding," or similar devices.  The actual "avatar" technology is entirely near-fetched.  The "USB organ" is a bit off-putting, but it is not pure fantasy magic -- the viewer is shown it in a way that plays off known understanding of the brain-stem and the outer limits of conceptual biology. 

Even small details are, at times, excellent: When Jake first lands with the science team to serve as their bodyguard, he sweeps the perimeter with rifle in hand, and his finger is not on the trigger but on the side of the trigger guard.  This is precisely what is taught by firearms instructors as the correct way to carry a firearm.  Putting one's finger on the trigger while walking around is a good way to risk accidentally firing unintended shots.  It is clear, then, that Cameron has the capability of getting even small details right.  This supports the disappointing hypothesis that when Cameron fails, he fails due to incompetence, not apathy.

Avatar is planted thick with tropes, and an attentive viewer will notice many more than this essay addressed.  Cameron evokes viewer familiarity and emotion through effective direction, but more often his literary tropes weigh down the story enough to leave a savvy viewer disappointed.  If Cameron had simply directed the film and a competent screenwriter had provided the nuts and bolts, Avatar might have been the defining movie of a generation.  Instead, it is merely a new high-water mark for special effects and concepting, forever limited in its reach by a mediocre narrative.

*As a child of the scientific age and a person who understands research methods, I believe the data show that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) probably is happening.  However,  I oppose the unprecedented power-grabbing and regulatory intrusion into the personal lives of individuals that is being perpetrated right now by the government using AGW as the excuse du jour.  The private sector always adapts, and the scientific community will find a way to work in accord, though this may not happen in earnest until the eleventh hour.

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