James Cameron‘s billion-dollar baby, Avatar, is as simplistic an adventure movie as they come. The last movie which so perfectly played by the numbers to deliver a rewarding and surprise-free night-out was, perhaps, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Both films are perfectly plotted “hero’s journeys” that rely heavily on archetypes and tried-and-tested models of mythological storytelling to guide the audience through a satisfying fairytale with as little discomfort as possible.
That’s a compliment. And one not even intended to be backhanded. There’s something really enjoyable about a well-done clichéd, hackneyed, formulaic and trite storyline. Afterall, they became clichés for a reason: they work time after time.
The problem is clichéd adventure stories are so often not done well and we’ve developed a distaste for them. We claim we’ve “seen it all before” while forgetting there hasn’t been a new story since Perseus gave Medusa a haircut.
And when it comes to our new fairground-ride styled blockbusters which place so much emphasis on CG and effects, you really need there to be a story behind the glitter that works effortlessly with the audience.
Star Wars Episode I is a classic example of a technologically advanced marvel that fell on its face by trying to hard to push the envelope for storytelling at the same time. There’s a Dune amount of characters and plot in that movie but only enough time to tell a story like… well… like Avatar.
Avatar is really what Episode I should have been. Imagine something like this:
Let’s see. Anakin lives on the once-lush half desert/half jungle planet of Tatooine. An Aladdin type, he’s a reckless and cocky orphaned street urchin with a little bit of the James Dean sneer to him. He’s played by James Franco instead of Hayden Christensen. Probably. Hopefully. He has big dreams but no direction. There’s unrest with the “savages” who live in the desert, the Tusken Raiders but this doesn’t affect his rumble-tumble life of petty crime directly.
Obi Wan (not fracking Qui Gon Jin) has been sent to Tatooine by the Republic because the Tusken Raiders had been raiding the moisture farms, as they are wont to do, what with being Tusken Raiders and all. Why do the Republic and the Jedi care? Maybe there’s “unobtainium” in the water. Maybe they’re just the guardians of peace and justice in the republic and Tatooine was less of a backwater shithole before the Empire turns its back on them. Something like that.
Anyway, Obi Wan finds this teenaged Anakin—about Luke‘s age in Star Wars— who is clearly strong in the force though too old to start his training. Still, Obi Wan sees something in him. Yoda would give him hell, but he wants to train this promising young loose cannon with the winning smile and tight breeches.
So Obi Wan enlists this talented young, reckless, pilot rogue to help with the Tusken Raider problem. Somehow Anakin gets captured. probably because he’s charmingly reckless. He spends time with the Raiders as a prisoner and learns they are Sand People, not just desert boogeymen.
He gains their confidence, learns that the desert people have been subjugated by the Republic for eons. Or at least since Palpatine came on the scene. Tatooine’s unobtainium water is apparently vital to the Republic but it’s sacred to the Sand People.
Moisture farming is slowly killing whatever Tatooine’s version of the Gaia myth is and is turning the planet into a desert. Maybe it helps the Sand People channel the Force or something. Doesn’t matter. What’s important is it’s sacred to them and Palpatine and his weasels in the Republic don’t care. It’s basically like the first three books of Dune but oh well.
Anakin vows to help them gain their freedom only to have the uprising fail. The Raiders are all but wiped out by Obi Wan leading an army of Mandalorian clones. Too late Obi Wan realises how he’s been manipulated by Palpatine and when he saves Anakin from certain death, they barely make their escape.
Anakin leaves Tatooine with Obi Wan a little more jaded and disillusioned yet determined to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi. The seeds of the Darkside having been planted, ironically at the same time Palpatine uses the uprisings as a political excuse to maneuver the Republic towards the Empire. Tatooine is doomed to desertifcation and the Sand People are scattered.
The stage is set for the next two films, The Clone Wars—the result of which the Jedi are all but wiped out and Palpatine becomes Emperor.
Maybe it’s not set on Tatooine, maybe it’s Naboo only there’s no Jar-Jar Binks. Doesn’t matter. The point is it’s a simple hero’s journey, in this case a tragic one, that won’t confuse anyone and they can just pay attention to the pretty light sabers knowing full-well how the story will end.
That’s what Avatar does right. It’s a mannequin on which to hang spectacular CG robes but it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be anything more than a perfectly proportioned frame to show off those robes. Glaring plot-holes and absurdities aside, it’s perfect for what it is.
Which isn’t much. And that’s okay.
(Even if in the sex scene their tentacle braids didn’t smooch like this. Which they totally would have.)
This week we talk about terrible hair-pieces and just what the fracking Cylons are up to (besides no good). Mandi gets increasingly impatient and irate with the pacing of the series.