Jan 09 2023

Avatar Tropes

The original Avatar movie came out in 2009, 13 years ago. Its budget was 240 million and it grossed nearly 3 billion dollars. So of course there was going to be a sequel. It’s just surprising that it took 13 years.

Also a little surprising, and disappointing, is how poorly written Avatar: The Way of the Water was. The movie was visually stunning, as expected, and some aspects of watching the movie were enjoyable. Most of the future technology was also pretty good. I loved the spaceships the humans used to get to Pandora, the robots and exoskeletons were also impressive. The cloning technology was an obvious follow up to the Avatar technology of the first movie, and also a clever plot device, allowing the return of previously killed antagonists.

But the writing was just horrific. It’s not as if Cameron did not have 13 years to hire the best writers and tweak the hell out of the script. It’s not as if he did not have a virtually unlimited budget given the profitability of the franchise. I have two major hypotheses as to why the writing was so bad, and they are not mutually exclusive.

The first is simply a lack of imagination. We are living, in many ways, during the golden age of television and cinema, and not just because of big budgets and advanced technology. We have lots of choices, and some of those choices are stellar. There are plenty of examples of excellent writing, and they have set the bar extremely high. I definitely think this has lowered my tolerance for mediocre writing. Formulaic scripts, predictable plots, and sluggish pacing are just not acceptable anymore. The art of great storytelling has evolved to a high level, and to some extent the industry is now a victim of its own success.

Avatar: The Way of the Water was painfully paced. It was one of those movies where you feel like you are stuck in act II, like the script is still laying the groundwork for the real action to come, which never does. At some point around hour 2 I realized – wait, this is the movie. This is it. It felt more like I was binging a really slow television series where entire episodes can be spent fleshing out a subplot or developing background, or just enjoying the scenery.

There are a couple of hallmarks of good writing that now should be standard. One is that the show creators have to manage the experience of the audience. They can’t just tell a story, they have to send us on a journey, with carefully timed twists and turns, and with strategically released information and building conflict. Watching the latest Avatar, I never felt like I was on a journey. Another feature is efficiency – a good cinematic storyteller can accomplish a lot in a very short amount of time. Characters can be developed with a single look. A short conversation between two characters can download lots of layered information to a savvy audience. The characters themselves need to be compelling in some way. We have to care about what happens to them, to cheer for the hero, cry at their loss, and revel in the downfall of the villain. Even better is when our expectations are inverted, and we end up being sad for the villain.

And that brings us to the worst part of Avatar – the characters were all cardboard tropes. Sully, the paralyzed marine who permanently transferred his consciousness into his Na’vi avatar, is the classic colonizer with a white savior complex who went native (the reason the original Avatar was given the nickname Dances with Smurfs). The villains have no complex motivations, no painful tradeoffs, no regrets. They just want to conquer and destroy because they need new land to occupy. The fact that the Na’vi are sentient beings doesn’t seem to matter to them in the slightest. It makes it hard to take them seriously as characters, and therefore care about them. The Na’vi clone of Colonel Miles Quaritch is the main villain, and they foreshadow that in later movies (3-5 are coming) he may also “go native”, but that barely registers in this film.

The thinnest writing was for the whale-hunter characters – basically Ahab wannabes hunting truly sentient Pandora “whales” to drain them of their central nervous system fluid, which can be used to extend human lifespans apparently forever. This is the worst science writing in the film – the notion of one substance that can achieve immortality by itself is highly implausible. But also, with their advanced technology, it is even more implausible that the substance could not be duplicated – grown in a vat of genetically altered organisms. You may be able to creatively retcon your way out of this apparent contradiction, but no explanation was evident in the film. They just needed a reason to have whale-hunters added to the villain list.

And of course the Na’vi themselves are the biggest trope. It is painfully clear (again, Dances with Smurfs) that their culture is heavily built on Native American culture, and not in a good way. This was a major criticism of the first movie, and again Cameron had 13 years to fix it. Also, the story allowed for the introduction of an entirely new culture on Pandora. The opportunity was right there. Instead, he doubled down, making the tropes even more cringeworthy. This is just lazy writing, and pretty unacceptable in 2022.

Which brings me to the other reason I think the writing was so bad – not necessarily lack of imagination, but lack of courage. I think the writing was bad for the exact same reason that the writing of Star Wars 7, 8, and 9 were terrible. At some level, the studio powers-that-be decided that the best course of action was to give viewers the exact same thing that made the original movie popular. They liked Avatar, so let’s not take any risks. They give them the exact same thing again. The problem with this formula is that it is a contradiction. Part of what we loved about the original movies is their innovation, and by definition you can’t repeat that.

This is a chronic problem with sequels. They are often just cynical money grabs. Studios know that the sequel to a popular movie is almost guaranteed to make profit. One strategy, therefore, is to put out a cheap knockoff for some quick bucks. But we live in the era of cinematic franchises, where this strategy may work for short term profit, but can be a franchise killer. Superfans lose interest in franchises that continually disappoint. You need to give us something new wrapped in the familiar and loved. But the story has to be innovated. I want to see the backstory expanded, characters deepened, the lore become more nuanced and complex. The overall story has to go somewhere. It can’t just be a retread of the same thing over and over.

I am still surprised when failed franchise sequels come out because this seems so obvious, and is greatly discussed online. One common speculation is that the money people are the ones who are risk averse and demand repeats of past successes. OK – but isn’t there overwhelming evidence that this approach does not work? Also, wouldn’t someone like Lucas or Cameron have the power to creatively overrule the bean-counters? I am not an industry insider, so I can only speculate. I’m just another disappointed fan.

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