Monday, May 24, 2010

James Cameron makes mistakes so you don't have to

Mistake #1: False exposition, or the "as you know, our mother died last week" problem.

Avatar example: (Big bad corporate guy, speaking slowly to hard-boiled scientist woman) "This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. No other reason. This is what pays for the party. And it’s what pays for your science."

Viewer reaction: REALLY? You've told me that there are teams and teams of people who have painstakingly grown genetically-specific Avatars, learned a whole new language, and had "years" of troublesome relations with the indigenous people, and the head scientist doesn't know about the MINERAL?

Solution: Do not have your characters tell each other things they already should know. If you have to get this information out in dialogue, use a character who has the same lack-of-knowledge as your reader.

Mistake #2: Painfully obvious stereotypes.

Avatar examples: (Bad corporate guy) "Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press -- and that’s a bad quarterly statement."

Viewer reaction: SERIOUSLY? You spent all this money on Avatars and all that other crap, but NOW it's cheaper to blow it all up? Then why not blow it up before you got involved with them? And, really, not even the big tobacco guys talk like this. Finally, for those of us who used to handle legal matters, do you know what often makes for a bad quarterly statement? BAD PRESS. People will boycott products -- even ones they love and thought they needed -- if the company is horrible enough.

Solution: Okay, stereotypes sometimes exist for a reason: some corporate guys ARE greedy. But please don't use stereotypes as a shortcut to establish plot or character. The character of Jake plays with some of the "dumb jock" stereotypes quite nicely, after all. (And while we're at it, don't name the unobtainable mineral unobtanium, or the selfish corporate guy Selfridge. Don't even get me started on the "noble savage" thing Cameron did with the Na'vi.)

Mistake #3: False tension.

Avatar example: (Military squad leader who is once again imitating the Full Metal Jacket speech) "You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. Out beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees."

Viewer reaction (as the show progresses): That's really pretty. Wasn't this planet supposed to be horrifyingly deadly? Was the military guy supposed to be lying? No, doesn't seem that way, because there's another reference to the deadly planet. Hey, our hero's leaving his body behind a lot. No danger to it, apparently...

Solution: Don't over-sell. Or explain why your hero is so special that none of the rules apply.


  1. Nice. Can we talk about the super-predictable plot next?

  2. Yes. Yes we can.

    Actually, I hadn't yet decided whether to do additional installments in the "James Cameron makes mistakes so you don't have to" series. Mostly, I hadn't decided whether I could do the other problems justice without rewatching the movie, which I really do not want to do...


  3. Um, I don't see it that way. I must respectfully disagree

    #1 - Someone pretending that something isn't important by stressing the importance of something else happens all the time - it's called misdirection and it's a bureaucratic staple. (See Rand Paul for a recent example). I've worked for the government 21 years (as a scientist). Believe me, this sort of thing happens daily. His including it just shows he knows how things work.

    #2 - A stereotype is only a loser if we've become enlightened enough to have moved past that kind of behavior. See BP. Clearly, we haven't. ("Unobtainium" is a aerospace inside joke for those in the know - see Wikipedia). Characteristics and viewpoints of the Na'Vi are in sync with a number of native peoples on this planet right now. Some of whom are facing similar crises. Note also that the time lag between starting an avatar and reaching the planet means that attitudes/program decisions/market pressure/other factors could have changed and made a benign interaction seem less and less cost effective. Seen that happen too.

    #3 Which body do you mean? The Avatar body? Big difference between a body left with the Na'Vi (who are likely the biggest threat our military leader was alluding to) and trying to face off with them. Historically, again, there are many many examples of environments where outsiders were quickly decimated while natives survived handily (even where they weren't killing the outsiders). The latter does not preclude the former. The story does stress the importance of knowledge and working with the environment instead of trying to "tame" it.

    Perhaps an understanding of the reality and history readily available here on this planet would be helpful in identifying mistakes. From my viewpoint, Cameron took the trouble to do so; his work is in keeping with a reality I can see in progress all around me and find repeatedly with a cursory review of history.

    (A super-predictable plot, like a stereotype, only becomes hackneyed when we're smart enough to keep it from happening in real life. Read the newspaper. We're not there yet. I suspect those that didn't like the plot were rather embarrassed that it isn't something we can relegate to our extreme past, but that's just speculation on my part.)

  4. THANK YOU!!!!!! I can die happy now that I know that one other person on this planet hated Avatar. THANK GOD it didn't win the Academy Award for best picture. It was a travesty that it was even nominated.

  5. (Okay, for some reason the comments are getting sent to my email, but I can't view them on the blog itself in any web browser. So I hope my contributions post properly...)

    Disagreement is welcome!


    #1: I see no misdirection in that section of script. The audience needed to know the characters were on that planet for a mineral. So the corporate guy explained things to the scientist, even though the scientist would obviously already know what the mineral was. There were other similar moments that were handled better, like when the scientist says "I need your brother" to Jake, then says "you know, the one with 3 years of training and a PhD?" in a snotty tone of voice to a coworker. In that case, we KNOW the coworker knows, but the scientist is being a jerk anyway, and the necessary information is revealed.

    #2: I know that there is a legitimate history behind the term "unobtanium" but the line followed several obvious clunkers like, "Wow, you look just like your identical twin brother, which I guess makes sense, since you're identical, which is why you're here! Because you have to have identical genetics to use your brother's Avatar." Under those circumstances, I was not inclined to give Cameron the benefit of any doubt. To me, even knowing the history, it didn't sound like an homage, it sounded like he just thought the name sounded REALLY DRAMATIC! Unobtainable unobtanium! Wowza! And, I'm not questioning that there could (in theory!) be differing factors with the passage of time, but the movie explained no such factors other than the Big Bad Corporate Guy saying it was time for the 4th quarter profit statement. Again, to me, this failed.

    #3: I felt there were many moments where the soldiers and other non-Avatared humans were just walking around without any fear or apparent danger, and that the drama was built up for an early scene in which Jake is threatened, and then the danger level plummeted because it wasn't needed as a plot point anymore. I do apologize for using a poor example and explaining myself in a sloppy manner, because you are right, a Na'vi body would tend to be less at-risk than a human one. I stand by my complaint, but I agree that my example to illustrate the complaint was weak.

    Perhaps I was not the target audience for this movie, but I laughed my butt off all the way through. Separate from any issues of social history that the film might have been trying to address (which again I would have found more compelling if not told in the style of: MILITARY AND CORPORATIONS BAD! EARTH-LOVING TREE-SAVING NATIVES GOOD!), I saw every element of the romantic subplot coming a mile away.

  6. So glad to see that we can all play nice. A lot of people I talked to hated the name "Unobtainium," now I'm kinda sorry it was an inside joke, 'cause it fell flat to the uninitiated masses.

  7. This is a clever and useful post. I think lots of writers get their ideas for plot and dialog from film and TV, so it's important to talk about stuff a new novelist will probably NOT get away with, even though successful screenwriters do it all the time.

  8. They seriously named it 'unobtanium'? I thought that was a joke.
    (Never saw it, as you may have guessed.)

  9. Great post! I HATED that they depicted the military guys as destroy first and ask questions later, while the scientists were all peace-loving and concerned about the native populace. From my experience (and I do have first hand experience) the military (at least U.S. military and let's be honest here, Cameron was depicting U.S military) is diligent in making sure they don't disturb holy places or anything else that's important to the civilians of an occupied territory. They have a specific MOS to cover this area. It's called Civil Affairs (I know it personally--it was my MOS). While scientists have been known to wreak havoc in tribal societies in order to pursue their research. Australian aborigines anyone? Yeah, scientists put them in zoos and dissected them for their research. Nice.

    If you're going to go and make a movie or write a book in order to make some moral point, make sure you have it right first.

    Loved this post!

  10. Ugh, this move was such a conflict for me. The visuals and the way they used the 3D were amazing. The story and dialogue? Hokey. I actually groaned at the word "Unobtainium," which, if it was an inside joke, went right over my head and would have served better in a parody of Avatar than the movie itself. If you want an amazing story/movie from last year, rent the sadly-overshadowed-by-Avatar District 9.

  11. Ah, Le R., what could I say about Papyrus that has not already been said?

  12. Hahahhaaaa! Oh, totally! I rolled my eyes so many times during Avatar I think I strained an eyebrow. It's still an awesome flick, on SO many levels, but Cameron's forte has NEVER been exposition or dialogue. I don't watch his films for their subtlety.

    Nicely deconstructed, good lady. :)