How I’d have written Cameron’s AVATAR

I’d have given everyone and everything much more dimension.

As well-done as this particular kind of “myth” story was — and I do think it was good, for its type — it still felt flat, given its futuristic setting and its modern-speaking, modern-seeming characters.

Sully is flat. Quaritch is flat. The Na’vi are flat. Everyone is assigned their role, and nobody much deviates from it, nor do they show sufficient complexity.

I’d have given Evil Corporation Is Evil a better motive to be on Pandora than a McGuffin Rock. I’d have also given Suit Boy, who works for Evil Corporation Is Evil, a better motive, beyond flip lines about stocks and shareholders.

I’d have given Quaritch a soft side, beyond his War Has Battered My Humanity From Me schtick. Lang deserved better than this cardboard villainy. Even something as predictable as Quaritch’s son or wife or someone he loved having been killed by the Na’vi, early in the occupation before the movie starts. Give him a reason to hate the Na’vi that we can empathize with — not agree with, empathize — so that Quaritch is more than just a drawling, flexing, pixilated goon.

I’d have made Sully much more conflicted about his switch to the Na’vi side. He pretty much goes over the second they give him his Na’vi body — and his legs. After that, his ‘journey’ to becoming one of The People is as predictable as anything else in this film. There is never any doubt, no question at all, that he’s gonna Go Native on our asses.

For that matter, I’d have made more of Quaritch’s rented guns question their loyalties, too. Beyond a single pilot, whose role was that of the noble Red Shirt. I know Army. I am Army. I know Marines a bit too. Only lifer civilians who have never served can think that military folk are a monolithic block of same-thinkers. The mindless willingness of every soldier to engage in butchery for Quaritch and Suit Boy was one of several things that snapped my suspension of disbelief. Especially when none of them is operating under anything like an oath or UCMJ. Many more of them should have abandoned Quaritch’s goals, even gone over to fight with the Na’vi, as Red Shirt Girl did.

On the flip side, I’d have given the Na’vi some conflict as well. Like Quaritch’s rented guns, the Na’vi are monolithic and same-minded, as a society. No competing tribes. No competing political factions. I’d have shown the Na’vi to be more than just Earth-worshipping tree-huggers who are perfectly content to live a stone-age lifestyle. Why not make Tsu-tey and a gang of his followers into technophiles? Maybe they even work for Suit Boy, against their own people, in exchange for modern toys and weapons? Tsu-tey thus sees his path to tribal power through his ability to get and keep Human gear.

On that note, another thing that snapped my suspension of disbelief was when Sully says that humans have nothing — nothing! — the Na’vi want. Oh please. Really? They don’t want vaccinations and dental care and antibiotics? Even assuming they reject hardware — perhaps logical given their Eywa-worship — there is no reason why they’d not be desperate for medicine. Or are we to assume the too-perfect Na’vi are so perfect they never get sick, never get toothaches, never have hernias or a burst appendix, and never get achey, blind, and deaf as they grow older?

Suspension of disbelief. Poof.

So try this on for size. In a nutshell…

Jake Sully still shows up to replace his dead brother. He’s still a lost soul after being discharged from the USMC following his spinal injury, but because he’s a smart and brainy Marine — twin brother had a Doctorate, c’mon — he’s not nearly as lunkheaded as originally portrayed.

When he gets to Pandora he finds that Evil Corporation Is Evil is not the only Earth company on the planet trying to mine McGuffin Rock. There are several companies, each of them going about it in a different way. Like Wal-Mart versus Costco. Sully happens to work for Evil Corporation Is Evil, but when he gets out among the Na’vi he encounters other Avatars from other companies, some of whom are actually working with the Na’vi cooperatively.

What’s more, the different tribes are using the different companies to try and gain a technological edge over each other. None of this white liberal fantasy kumbayah crap. Pandora is red in tooth and claw, after all, so how come the Na’vi are magically peaceful when the environment around them is perpetually devouring itself? So it’s tribe on tribe warfare, and Jake finds himself caught between competing companies and competing Na’vi.

Oh, he can still have his Paul Atreides moments, riding the Sand Worm — err, I mean, Great Leonopteryx — and teaching the Fremen — err, I mean, the Na’vi — the true meaning of warrior leadership. We can even have him squaring off with the Baron Harkonnen — err, I mean, Quaritch — whose hatred for all Na’vi and Pandora itself are explained expositionally by a holo in his quarters of a wife and children taken from him by Pandora’s hostile environment and hostile native sapients.

In the end, the Good Corporation Is Good military, plus its Avatars, can hook up with Sully and his people against Evil Corporation Is Evil, as Quaritch cries havoc and the competing Na’vi tribes all clash in a fantastic, final, climactic superbattle.

Put more simply, it would not have taken much in the way of script changes to make this film far more interesting and far less annoying in terms of my Bullshit Detector.

Which leads me to the “living planet” part of the movie: Eywa. Few things were more transparentally Leftist Environmentalist than the concept of Eywa, which was basically just Gaia Hypothesis dressed up in organic plug-and-play. Want to be one with the forest? Be in tune with Mother Earth? Pull out your pony braid and jack in, man! It’s like The Matrix only with trees and dragons and shit! Awesome! Pass the bong!

I’d have scrapped the entire Eywa concept. It was trite. It was environmentally churchy. It was a pipe dream for tree-hugging Luddites as much as the big war with Evil Corporation Is Evil was a revenge fantasy for technology and industry-hating, First Peoples-fetishizing hippies. Yah! The evil nasty capitalist company people finally get what’s coming to them! Pass the bong!!

You can still have a great story without Eywa.

Or, if you must keep Eywa, then my goodness, go full-bore and make it into something like The Force was, prior to the whole midichlorians bullshit. Make it a truly supernatural, mystical thing, no silly science. The Na’vi are in tune with it because it’s been with them their whole existence, whereas the godless materialist humans can’t understand or tap in, because they long ago abandoned their own God before embarking for the stars.

Which reminds me. Was I the only one who thought, if Pandora and the Na’vi were to actually exist, the best way to make contact with them would be to send — not a Marine, not scientists — but a pastor? A priest? A yogi or guru or someone with a religious and spiritual background? When you want to talk to and reason with church people, you don’t send Richard Dawkins. You send more fucking church people! And it’s pretty clear all the way through the film that the Na’vi are very churchy, right down to their temple — the Tree of Souls — and their rituals surrounding same. A minister or other person steeped in religious study or theology would have been right at home in that culture, whereas the scientists and the suits and the mercenary soldiers get the gong.

Anyway, like I said, the story, as-is, was adequate. And as a whole film, Avatar was impressive. It really was as visually amazing as everyone said it would be. And Cameron knows action and how to pace an action movie. That’s been evident throughout his career. It’s just that I kept thinking, through the whole film, “This movie would be so much more enjoyable and have such an improved impact, if…”

Maybe I am cursed, as Storyteller, to always break down other peoples’ stories and wonder how I’d have done it differently. But I didn’t experience the same twitching with Lord of the Rings as I did with Avatar. Heck, I didn’t experience the same twitching with Wall-E, which was environmentally and anti-consumerist preachy in its own right, and would have flopped badly had the movie not been carried — absolutely — by the adorable romance between the WALL-E robot and the EVE robot.

Avatar. Seen it. Experienced it. It impressed technically. It even impressed occasionally with moments of touching story. But those moments tended to get washed away — Pandora hammerhead rhinos conveniently showing up to mow down the sociopathic door gunner from Full Metal Jacket? — by the hammy and often over-intrusive lecturing, combined with too-simplistic character and culture-building.


  1. I agree the story could have been so much better. Imagine instead of black/white characters, but characters who suffer through a labyrinthian maze of conflicted values. People/aliens who do the right things for the right reasons/ the right things for the wrong reasons/ the wrong things for the right reasons etc….

    Anyway on to the sequel. The humans go home with their tail between their legs. Blue Hero boy and girl have a kid. The humans return 10/15/20 years later armed for bear because this planet has something worth far more than unobtanium. Rich people can clone their own younger avatars using human tech, then ewya can transfer the mind/soul into the newer younger body. If only ewya can be tamed. So the humans make a reverse avatar for hero boy and girl to serve as ambassadors during the ‘negotiations’ by an overwhelming force. Ewya in chains.

  2. Haven’t seen it and don’t plan to until I can borrow the DVD from the library. If I want to be preached to, I’ll go to church, thank you.

    Visual effects no longer impress me, and especially not computer-generated effects. Sometime around 1987 it became obvious that you could put anything on screen if you were willing to throw sufficient computer power at it. (That date is halfway between the “genesis bomb” clip in Star Trek II and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park). Yes, the trailers for Avatar show that Cameron has mastered the technology, and no doubt the movie will make plenty of money. But we’ll see how it holds up on the small screen where story has to carry more of the weight.

  3. [Warning SPOILERS in my comment}

    I just saw Avatar last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though it was heavy handed at times, it played out just like a successful blockbuster film should. Most of the folks that I’ve seen complaining about the plot/characterization (with good points and re-writes like yourself) are authors. The source of the complaints makes sense, but the complaints don’t always make sense for the medium.

    Film is a visual medium and the most watered down when comparing material in multiple formats (i.e. Lord of the Rings, Interview with a Vampire, etc). I’m not saying cerebral film or good characterization doesn’t exist, but when playing for the cheap seats you have to make the story as universal as possible. This film was PG-13 (as was Titanic) for one reason and that was to generate as much money from the largest demographic possible. Could he have done a better job of characterization, plot or theme? Definitely. Was the message jammed down your throat during certain parts of the film. Painfully so. Yet it still managed to deliver an entertaining experience while trying to relate bigger ideas – corporate greed is bad, be better in tune with your environment, alien animals will try to eat your face πŸ˜‰ – to multiple cultures and age groups.

    If Avatar were a novel, I could see the opportunities for deeper characterization and subtlety in thematic storytelling that were missed in the film. Could this have been worse? Imagine if Michael Bay had made Avatar. My balls would still be vibrating from the bass of 3 hours of explosions in 3-D. I think Cameron did as well as he could walking the fine line between studio profit and artistic vision.

  4. I think I would have to defend the movie on some fronts. Let’s start with what I agree with regarding the points already made.

    I do agree that characterization could have been made more deeply, and motives beyond simple making of money be the grounds for the intended villainy. I also agree that more dissent on all sides would have reflected a more probably situation.

    Being from a military family, and also well-exposed to the mindset of military personnel, I would have to assume that the “troops” in Avatar were purely mercenary, from their overall behavior and frequent references to “sign up” for the work “contracts” involved.

    As for the environmentalist message, I do agree that it did become logically untenable once all manner of beasts came of their own volition to enter the fray. As for the plug and play hook-up to the planetary consciousness, yeah… it was a bit much… nifty idea, but crossing whole genera from animals to plants really didn’t work out; indeed it made me wonder what was a plant there and what wasn’t.

    What really killed me was the levitating mountains. So.. logic flaws in the movie? plenty… but some mentioned in the review could be regarded in other ways…

    For your consideration…

    The tribal unity in the movie, regarding the various Na’vi groups all coming to fight the good fight, was explained in the movie – insofar that the legendary ability to tame and fly the Great Leonopteryx was said to have happened only 4 times in the past since their culture began, and each time in a time of great crisis, and with the effect of unifying the clans into one great purpose. I would presume that the natural ideological differences between tribal groups would be shown in the sequel, especially now that the Great Leonopteryx was released from service (also clearly indicated in the movie).

    As for some tribes taking the human side and wanting human technology, even medicines, it would depend on some elements not mentioned in the movie at all – such as exactly what the Na’vi physiology is all about, and any frailties that are there. It actually is conceivable that humanity – by lack of knowing what to offer – has only offered the “usuals” to the Na’vi, and those usual items of trade are – for unspecified reasons – unnecessary. Who knows? Maybe the Na’vi will be shown to have an addiction to radishes in sequels, and could be manipulated accordingly…

    To assume that an alien culture about 4 light-years away would fundamentally need our human medicines, or anything else that we consider “useful”, is simply species-ist… More likely it would be hit and miss based upon seeing what they would take from us once they got to sample everything we had, and even then could well desire something for a reason that we would never imagine, and perhaps consider humorous.

    The distance from Earth would also get in the way of the notion of competing styles of resource discovery, extraction, and – in keeping with the movie theme – “exploitation”. It is conceivable that the costs involved in such trips are prohibitive of several competing companies joining forces, or even multiple companies sending their own craft to work the planet. Indeed, that variability in attitude was effectively accounted for in the different approaches between the corporate/mercenary types and the scientist/negotiation types that were shown. Furthermore, to have the ultimate authority be the one that simply “produces” the more of the desired mineral is more a sad commentary on the actual human nature than anything else.

    Is it unlikeable? yes… is it unreasonable for the setting? no…

    It was suggested that perhaps sending in religious types to the Na’vi would have been better. For that, I would have to disagree very strongly. We have a history of that on this world, and the missionaries don’t study a region’s faith to truly understand it, but rather to convert who they find away from their faith to the “correct” one of the missionary religion. MUCH better to send scientists with the right notions of anthropology and xenobiology to study what is there for itself, rather than for any particular kind of exploitation or conversion.

    In the end, it is a generic movie plot, mixing the typical components of the standard heroic journey with a liberal ripping from FernGully, Dances With Wolves, and Pocahontas…

    The fact that the lead character would wind up going native was obvious from the moment his paralysis was evident, and his ‘avatar’ would have full bodily mobility.

    I have to agree that the human attitudes in the movie could have been much more diverse and in conflict. The Na’vi variation in mindsets was present, but due to the imminent emergency aspect of what the tribe portrayed was facing, it is understandable that not all opinions were voiced. (The “process” to allow for dissenting views was addressed regarding the Na’vi, however, which was part of Sully’s desire to complete entering what amounted to Na’vi “manhood”.)

    I have to agree that I would have toned down the notion of Eywa if I had done the movie, keeping the mental plug and play aspect to within the animal life (only), and not crossing it into the plant end of things… OR… make a point of saying that all the “plants” aren’t really what we would understand as “plants”… or something… I would not have used the Deus Ex Machina aspect of having the animals and such rush to help the Na’vi…

    But then I wouldn’t have had Sully and the pilot girl not realize that the greatest vulnerability to the craft used by the humans was that 90% + of it was using helicopter technologies… hell… just fly over and drop a lot of rocks and watch the rotors fall apart… easily done!

    Personally I only had TWO really big issues with the movie…

    One… what was in that atmosphere that would be so toxic to human lungs, that would not dissolve into acid rain to burn the exposed flesh, or would be taken in by the obviously existing oceans, and could be remedied by simply putting on an air filtering device? I’ve seen numerous arguments on this, and really none are that convincing, especially given the fact that various gases are naturally variable in concentrations by things like altitude, etc… Frankly, this aspect of the movie was really unnecessary, and the need for ‘avatars’ to interact with the natives explained in other ways.

    Two… I can still not get over the mind-numbing aspect of the floating mountains existing on the planet, explained by “magnetic” justification, while METAL human vessels can just fly through the area without everything going haywire, including flight controls, and even the potential of electifying the crafts involved.

    In the long run… does the movie need some really heavy duty “explaining” of certain phenomena? very clearly YES….

    Hopefully that is what the two planned sequels will address….

  5. As a writer myself, I’ve frequently noticed that I’ve been mentally re-writing and criticizing any mediocre media I see.
    Avatar, for me, was amazing as far as animation, but I found the plot and characters both stubbornly flat and hard to really get to know, care about, or even like to a considerable level.
    What’s surprising is that I would have written Avatar along the same lines as you said you would in your article, but I would also have added the idea of Sully teaching the Na’vi (which, by the way, are named after or have the same name as the collection of saint-like priests of Judaism – annoying because the Na’vi of the movie are even portrayed as saint-like even though it’s clear that they shouldn’t be) how to grow crops. That it is almost or even more important than medicine because with a sustainable food source their population can grow and they can actually turn into a society that doesn’t relay on finding berries at random. Was Cameron telling as that his precious saint-like Na’vi refused that important information or that they’d consider it wrong because – oh, how awful – they’d have to cut down a few trees to clear the land for crops?
    As for Sully, grow up and get a grip, man. If I want to see an immature sci-fi character I’ll watch Doctor Who, which actually has a better plot than Avatar.
    If Cameron writes a sequel I sincerely hope he reads this page or gets some help with it.

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