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.