Wednesday, February 10, 2010
AVATAR and the Theory of Character Regression
I'm gonna warn you ahead of time: there are going to be spoilers here. But everyone in America has seen this by now, so it shouldn't be a problem...
After seeing AVATAR last weekend, I've been running a kind of unofficial survey amongst the people that I know. It's really simple - I just ask what that person thought of the movie, being careful not to betray my own bias. Here's what I found: a good 75% of the time, the person's response is something like, "The visuals were amazing, but the story wasn't so great." Now, if you'll permit me to vent a little, here's a blanket statement for you: a movie that has a weak story cannot, no matter how pretty it is, be a good movie. It can't. If it has a bad story, then it's a bad movie. Story is still king, no matter if James Cameron is the writer or not, no matter if it's gorgeous or not.
I will give the film some credit, however (snarky credit, of course). Cameron does something in this movie that I've never seen anywhere, in any movie. He turns the concept of character development on its head, and his characters actually regress so blatantly that it has to be intentional on Cameron's part. These characters go from complex, interesting people that we may actually care about a couple of hours from now, to simple, illogical caricatures that we neither mourn nor celebrate with. Let's be a little specific.
Sigourney Weaver's character of Dr. Grace Augustine begins the film as the genius curmudgeon who resents a jarhead like Jake being assigned to her mission. She provides the counter-balance to Jake's bullheadedness and serves as the voice of reason to her superiors. As the movie progresses, though, Grace (who's not graceful at all, ha!) becomes increasingly irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to fawn over the Na'vi children. Science goes out the window right along with Grace's quirky smoking ritual. It's the same deal with Joel Moore's Norm Spellman who enters the movie as a brilliant scientist who is initially jealous of Jake's success with the Na'vi (which would have been an interesting plot device, but they chucked it after 5 minutes), but regresses into a gun-toting madman who throws himself in front of bullets. Isn't he a scientific genius? The best way for him to help was with a machine gun? Really? There wasn't some way to combine the Na'vi's knowledge of the science of Pandora with Norm's brilliance? Nope. Machine guns.
Even Jake, who has the most interesting character trait of all - the paraplegic who suddenly finds himself with legs - regresses into a faux William Wallace, spouting motivational gibberish from a mountaintop. Seriously, we couldn't explore this idea about how it felt for him to have legs again for, like, ten minutes? He runs around one time and it's old for him? Sidenote: what happened to the other avatars? The beginning establishes that there are a bunch of them. Where did they go?
And the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch, who begins the film as a reasonable military man who seems to understand the ins and out of in-theater operation, becomes a babbling idiot, whose military tactics make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Like, I don't know, maybe drop the bomb from really high up so that you didn't crash into trees and whatnot? Also, out of nowhere, he regresses into a crazed maniac who wants nothing else but to kill the blue folks. The mission doesn't matter to him anymore, he only wants be an exterminator. It doesn't make sense. The guy is career military; he makes a living in situations like this.
The best example of this idea of character regression, though, is Pandora itself (hey, Cameron makes it a character - why can't I?). The first third of the movie is concerned with this idea of the living planet in which everything is connected through a kind of neural network. Sidenote: Sigourney's monologue about the neural connections between the trees provoked out-loud laughing from both Janna and me. Totally ridiculous on a Mega Shark level. Then, later, when Jake is doing the William Wallace thing, he has to send everybody flying out to the other tribes? Why can't they just plug into the network and summon the others? Isn't that the point? And isn't it a rather large planet? It should have taken weeks to get all those warriors there, right? This is another example of the limitation of Cameron's writing - he can't close the deal. In the end, it's all just an action flick and darn the details. Continuing with Pandora, what's the deal with the body switching ritual? They just had this particular dance/chant/whatever ready to go in case they needed to switch bodies? Does this kind of thing happen regularly?
Here's why Cameron is no Tolkien (not that anyone is claiming that he is, of course). In films like THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, there is an internal consistency, an internal logic, to the created world. In AVATAR, there is none. Why do the floating mountains have waterfalls? Where does the water come from? Why does Eywa choose to wait three-quarters of the way through the battle to send the animals in? Why does Michelle Rodriguez suddenly care about the Smurfs? Are the screenwriters of DANCES WITH WOLVES and POCAHONTAS going to sue for plagiarism? And the big question: don't they know that the evil capitalists are just gonna come back with bigger guns and bigger bombs?
Anyway, I'll say it again. A movie with a weak story is a weak movie. It gets some points for being extraordinarily beautiful, but that's it. AVATAR gets 2 Resident Evil dobermans out of 5 (you go watch the Resident Evil movies and tell me that the dogs aren't exactly the same as the ones in AVATAR. Go on.). By the way, I reserve the right to upgrade this in the future if the sequels are better... and I hope they are.