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May the Eywa Be With You

December 27, 2009

It has been just over a week since I saw Avatar.  The James Cameron one with the blue people, and the three-dimensional innovations for two-dimensional characters.  And… well, it’s just taken a while to figure out what to actually say about it. 

When it comes down to it, the thing that still strikes me is how I can be in two minds about it.  If someone gave me free movie tickets, I’d be inclined to give it a second whirl and watch it in 3D.  If (who am I kidding – when) a sequel comes out, I’ll see it.  And yet, I couldn’t completely ignore the predictability of the plot and cardboard cutout characters.

Can you forgive a movie, a story-telling method, for a dodgy tale and clichéd characters simply for its jaw-dropping presentation?  In book terms, that’d be like saying that a badly-written story could be forgiven because the type-setting and book jacket is just really purdy.  Put like that, it sounds an easy answer.  BUT…

I did enjoy the movie.  The story, whilst nothing ground-breaking, was engaging enough.  The visuals, whilst a massive attraction, were not the only good thing the movie had going for it.    There was some great moments of humour, some impeccable design, some adrenline-inducing scenes.  So I guess I’ve been rambling to come back to where I started: for a big-budget event flick, it was one of the best I’ve seen.  But as a film that’ll be a landmark in cinematic history?  I’m not so sure.

The ‘webs have been throwing around the notion that Avatar is going to be our generation’s Star Wars.  To that, I guffaw, “I hardly think so!”  My reasons for thinking so are listed below, but step cautiously, for here there be spoilers.

Technical Innovations.  This seems to be a big point for the Avatar-as-the-new-StarWars crowd, but I don’t see it as a particularly valid argument.  I agree that Cameron’s advances in cinematic technologies are impressive, as, so I hear, were Lucas’ back in the day, maybe to the point of being comparable.  But that doesn’t make the films comparable. 

An Absence of Icons.  The Na’vi were pretty cool, but that was about it.  Whilst the design of the planet and its wildlife is unique and fantastic to look at, there is not as broad a spectrum of individual icons.  Star Wars had Vader, it had the two droids, it had lightsabres.  Avatar‘s unique wildlife were too insignificant or too much alike to things we’ve seen before (ie. the pterodactyl bird-things that looked like, well, pterodactyls) to make a mark in that regard.  And in the same vein:

The Lack of Catchphrases.  SW gave us the unforgettable “May the Force be with you.”  Where is Avatar‘s line to be integrated so innately into popular culture?  At best, it would be the pithy, plain “I see you.”  For the amount of times it is repeated in the film, you can almost see the hope that it would catch on, but it doesn’t have the same immediate effect.  With  the SW quote, there are immediate associations to the film through the mention of The Force.  Avatar‘s quote has no direct connection to the film or its mythos.  That opens it up to being a more in-the-know, inside joke type of phrase, but I can’t see it finding its way into the cultural lingo in the same way.  But maybe Cameron’s trying to think up his own “No, I am your father” for the sequel.

The Difficulty of a Sequel.  And speaking of sequels, this is my big issue with the comparison.  There’s no doubt that Avatar could become a franchise, but it’s not so easy to see where it could go in terms of plot.  I’ve got several points for this one, so here we go:

The Deaths of Primary Characters. At the conclusion of SW, almost all the major players are still kicking.  Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2, 3PO, even Vader who’s spinning off somewhere in space.  Yet Avatar took the liberty of killing off the majority of its major cast.  Grace Augustine, Trudy, Tsu’Tey, Quaritch.  The only main characters alive, rearing for a follow-up, are Jake and Neytiri.  This immediately limits the possibility of expanding the storyline because a sequel will need to introduce new characters.  Because they’re new, we won’t already be attached to them and have the same connection to them as we would have had they carried over from the first film.  This is additionally frustrating because the characters were largely underdeveloped.  We hardly knew them, and as such, their deaths did not have as much effect as they would have should we have been allowed to grow to love them over the course of a trilogy.  Yet because of the extermination of many major characters in Avatar, the individual film had impact.  But in terms of being a set up for the sequel, it shot itself in the foot on this one.

Neatly Wrapping Up the Story.  SW did it to, but managed to pick up the story anyhow.  Yet Avatar concludes too cleanly.  The Na’vi win, humans are banished.  Perhaps most damning in sequel-terms, Jake gives up his own body to permanently inhabit his avatar.  As in, he no longer has an avatar.  Considering that is the titular idea, that makes Avatar 2 sound a little… well, not quite right.  But where would the plot go?  Would the humans come back with a vengeance?  That sounds like a repeat of film 1, more or less.  Would the Na’vi start warring amongst themselves…?  Simply put, I struggle to see a natural continuation of the story, which may be, in part, due to:

The Narrowness of Scope.  Yes, the film was a big-budget epic, but it took place on a single planet, and the threat to that planet (or more precisely, moon) was removed at the end of the film.  Pandora was the only focus of the film.  It’s all that we’ve come to know about, to care about, to learn about.  We know that there’s a greater universe, but we haven’t touched on it.  Star Wars, however, did.  We bounced through Tatooine, Alderaan, Yavin 4, the Death Star.  We got a bigger picture of the universe, and so it was easier to expand on and add to.  As we’ve only expanded on a single planet in Avatar, to move away from it in a sequel would distance it too much from the first film for it to be easily considered a sequel.  Thus an adventure on another planet seems a difficult road to take.

So these are my main issues with Avatar as the new Star Wars.  It’s possible that time will prove me wrong: after all, SW has had 30+ years to ingrain its catchphrases and icons.  It surely sounds like I’m panning Avatar, but I honestly enjoyed it.  It might become an icon in its own right, but all I’m trying to express is that I don’t think it’s a new Star Wars.

So what do you think?  Can you forsee people painting themselves blue for dress-up parties a few decades down the road, or quoting “I see you” to their friends? Is there an obvious route to a sequel that I’ve been completely oblivious to?  And I guess, most importantly: what did you think of Avatar?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas aka 'martinroshak' permalink
    December 27, 2009 9:32 PM

    Mmmm… interesting comments. On the ideas of a sequel, who says it will chronologically follow? Didn’t Star Wars do prequels? Maybe it will go back into the history of the Avatar program, I mean, to have started that school that is spoken about, what kind of issue would that have proved for the humans? Weak, yeah, but we didn’t hear a whole lot about the history of the mining company’s compound and it’s establishment. If Pandora was so hostile, how come there’s this mining site right in the middle of it? How did it come about? Just my thoughts on it, I like the issues you brought up. I don’t think it can become the next Star Wars, but it could become a successful sci-fi film series and possibly franchise. I like your thoughts on the iconic phrases and characters, very interesting. Thanks!

  2. December 29, 2009 3:00 PM

    I did consider the prequels, but there are still a heap of problems. It will still need to introduce new characters, or even if it focuses on the origin of the Avatar program (which, I agree, would be interesting to know) and we learn about Grace, etc., we’ll be isolated from the rest of the main cast – particularly our dear Jake and Neytiri. Basically, it still stands is that we won’t have enough of the characters we know.

    If they did take the path of detailing the Na’vi school, start of the Avatar program, arrival of humans on Pandora, etc, I think I’d prefer it to occur in a way that still moved forward. Perhaps there are still effects of these events to be felt on the now human-free Pandora…?

    But yes, I agree that I can see it becoming a nifty franchise (if they can create a natural continuation of the story), but I can’t see it impacting the culture in the same way as things like Star Wars.

    And thanks for reading! 😀

  3. January 9, 2010 7:17 PM

    I disagree with your comments about a sequel – I believe they left it very open for a sequel.

    My reasoning behind this is that we have a situation in the plot where:

    1. Unobtanium apparently only occurs on pandora, costs a LOT and is extremely valuable to humanity.
    2. The human mining company which was in charge of running the operations there has just been kicked out.

    The obvious path then to take it humanity launching further attacks on Pandora to mine the unobtanium. I don’t believe this would at all be like the first film though – the first film was about the native rebelling against a group of mercenaries – I believe in a sequel we’d see the stakes raised considerably.

    Furthermore we still know very little about pandora as a whole and I’m sure they could expand on that significantly.

    I doubt they’d call it Avatar 2, I think this would be the sort of series to have a separate title for each part that comes out.

    But I do agree with you that I don’t think it won’t have the same cultural impact as Star Wars or at least it will have a very different impact, I think its impact probably lies more in the way of (hopefully) people becoming more aware of the environment and less xenophobic – but of course those are pretty hard things to do.

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