Sunday, January 10, 2010

In which I change the plot of "Avatar" by less than 15% and improve it at least 250%

I keep coming back to "Avatar" in my head. Partly because new people in my life keep seeing it and then asking me what I think. They do this for a couple reasons: 1) I'm the avowed hard-core sci-fi buff of my crowd, and; 2) I write.

I was initially going to write three reviews of "Avatar." The first was the "the plot kinda sucks and is old and kinda sucks" review, which would give the movie a "B-" grade. The second was going to be the fanboi version that salivated all over the effects for an "A-." The third was going to be a semi tongue-in-cheek post-modern review in which the experience of being immersed in a 3D, CGI movie was linked to the plot of the film -- in that the main character is immersed in a 3D, CGI rig. The triumph of the "Avatar Man" over the "Military Man" was to be read as a fable of the triumph of social networking and technology over war, strife, bombs, bad acting and the obligatory, unrelated, "gimme" song that played over the credits.

Instead, what I'm going to do is improve the plot of the movie by around 250% by changing less than 15% of what happens on screen.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the movie and want to be surprised, or if you think Cameron may take my ideas and re-issue the movie with my improved plot, STOP READING NOW.

OK. This won't make any sense if you haven't seen the movie, but here we go.

Setup: Same as before. Jake takes over his brother's Avatar in order to live among the blue people.

Background (revealed in conversation): Pandora was initially explored because our sensors picked up signature radiation from Unobtainium, an element that provides almost limitless power with no harmful waste. Earth is dying from a lack of energy to grow food, clean the water, etc. Unobtainium will provide the answer.

More background (revealed when Jake gets to Pandora): Turns out there's only traces of Unobtainium, but that the Pandoran's ability to commune with nature may be another way to save earth. Studying the race becomes much more important than mining. Military isn't needed to guard mining operations, but are waiting for the next ship to go back to Earth.


When, however, he is finally inducted into the tribe and gets to hang out under the Mother Tree -- whose yammayamma flux radiation whatsis makes scanners unable to penetrate the area -- he (or Sigourney... doesn't matter) discover that the tree has been "hiding" an enormous deposit of Unobtainium. It's all bunched up in the roots of the tree. Theory proposed by Siourney: the powers of the Pandorans and the tree come from proximity to Unobtainium!

Military Guy finds out about this and determines to take the Unobtainium back to earth to either be a power source, and/or fuel a renaissance of Eco-psychic power stuff, either of which would save the earth. IMPORTANT: Military Guy is NOT a total dick, he just wants to save Earth and its children. This wasn't at all stated in the actual plot, and the desire for the Magic Rock seemed to be only greed. Not as good a motive from a plot standpoint, especially stacked against genocide.


Military guy tries to get the Unobtainium, Jake helps the tribe protect the tree. The three has to survive, though. Why? Because, in the end, Jake -- upon successfully defending the tribe and tree -- communes with the All Mother and she reveals to him the place where the pods (spores, whatever) for Baby Trees can be found, and that rather than the trees living off Unobtainium, they actually PRODUCE it in the presence of an intelligence that values the whole ecosystem. IE, the tree gives off good junk when taken care of. We get the idea (from Jake's tree-mama dream vision) that if Jake et al can take the pod/spore/nut/seed/thing back to Earth, it will grow, produce Unobtainium, and begin the process of allowing humans to have eco-psychic powers.

So... how does that improve the plot:

  1. It gives the humans a decent reason to be spending huge time, effort and money on studying the Pandorans. In the original, it seemed like, "Why do they care? If they're just after the Unobtainium, why not just nuke the blue guys? It's a 12-year round trip to earth; that argues that anything brought to Pandora has to have a serious function besides pure research. Making the understanding of this culture preeminent to the success of the mission elevates the whole Avatar process from "side show" to "big top."

  2. It gives the human "bad guys" a reasonable excuse for genocide. Is this the first non-human intelligent race we've discovered? (not counting mice and dolphins, of course). That's a HUGE DEAL. Just going blam-blam willy nilly because their tree is sitting on top of expensive stuff is insanely juvenile. Bad guys with a decent moral reason (save the earth children) to be bad are more interesting than greedy bad guys.

  3. It makes saving the tree and the Pandorans an actual happy ending rather than a deferred tragedy. Why do I say the original ending was a deferred tragedy? Because if Unobtainium is expensive enough to warrant a 12 year round-trip interstellar jaunt, it's worth coming back for with a space ship full of neutron bombs or poison gas. Still need/want the expensive junk? Check. Still don't care about genocide? Check. Well, gas 'em from space. We'll see if the big birds can suck vacuum.

  4. It makes the point that good things come from the environment when you take care of it and cultivate (sorry) a relationship with the entire ecosystem. You CAN'T (long term) get Unobtainium by killing the tree; it's the goose that laid the sci-fi egg. You have to respect the tree, live with it, and then you get the good stuff.

We get to keep the majority of the movie intact, see? All the "learning from the Pandorans" stuff (which is cool) and all the fight scenes (which are cool) get to stay. All I'm asking for is a bit more ramp-up in terms of rationale for the expedition and Bad Guy behavior, and then a little more pay-off in terms of why doing the Good Thing produces good results.

I would see my version of the movie again. And I'd cry at the part when the general, just before dying, finds out that Jake can take the Mother Tree Nut home and save the earth.

As it is, I probably won't see "Avatar" again, or buy the DVD. There's not enough "there" there to warrant repeat viewings, and the mushy plot decisions made me feel like he should have spend $100,000 less on effects and $25,000 more on some script consulting.

Next time, James... call me first.

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