Building a Better Avatar

In an earlier post, I said that, with Avatar, James Cameron could’ve told basically the same story with a lot more kick if he’d refined the central conflict. I try not to say things like that unless I can at least sort of back them up. So here’s a short, quickly composed list of ways in which I think Avatar could’ve been made better without sacrificing the central story or themes:

Broadly speaking, I think the key is creating stronger characters and giving them tougher choices, as well as laying out the stakes a little more clearly. So why not start the movie by dropping Sully into an avatar Marine squadron and have them take down a problematic Na’vi tribe? You get a great opening action sequence, you give Sully some guilt later on, and you create a stronger, clearer reason for the Na’vi to mistrust, even hate, humans.

As it is, Sully comes off like a teenager — alternately sulky and irresponsible. Why not make Sully an ultra-dedicated, highly-decorated, highly-capable Marine, someone with a deep investment in the Corps’ values and mission? That makes Col. Quaritch — who would spend the first two acts subtly selling Sully on the duty and honor of their work — more convincing, more compelling, harder to resist.

And why not go further by giving Sully a sick father — also a Marine — back home, one whose disease is only treatable by a medicine made with Unobtanium? Done right, this makes Sully’s conversion more anguished, and thus more powerful.

While we’re at it, why not make Weaver’s scientists more explicitly radical in their preservationism? Make them win the argument about Pandora’s natural value, more or less, but give them some flaws, some overreach. This adds some ambiguity, some shades of gray, to Sully’s choice, and it would offer a compelling clash with Sully’s inherent conservatism.

And how about spending more time giving the Na’vi some specific personality, some unique culture — some Zen calm about the state of the world, or some wariness about blind loyalty, something that makes them a “third way” to the outlooks of the scientists and the military — and perhaps some low-tech tricks that help them fight their technologically superior opponent?

That would also allow for some more interesting battle scenes at the end of Act II and throughout Act III. As Cameron has it, it’s basically big guns vs. big passion. There’s no strategy or rhythm to the action, just spectacle and slow-mo (which drives me nuts given how rigorously constructed the action scenes are in Aliens and T2). The escape scene, in particular, is really lazy. They’re locked up. Then they get out. See how easy it is! There’s almost no tension.

The film could’ve created a lot more tension if, post Hometreepocalypse, it prepped the final onslaught by having the Na’vi send a small, highly skilled strike force into the base camp — communicating with and controlling various natural elements (“the tree vines snake slowly along the ground, then reach up and swiftly knock out the guards, allowing Sully and the rest of the team to sneak by”) along the way — in hopes of taking out (or stealing?) one of Quaritch’s key weapons.

That way, when Quaritch launches the final strike, it’s a little better matched, and, hopefully, the audience understands the balance of power on both sides a little more clearly. As for the final match up, how about letting the Na’vi’s communal abilities play in, giving them, as I already suggested, more control over the natural world — perhaps even allowing them to do what the Na’vi have not done in a thousand years, because the effort (and risk) is too great, and join their powers together in order to become one with it, giving them the option to, say, use the floating islands as weapons, dropping them like bombs from above.

I won’t cover all the details (though if Cameron wants a rewriter for the inevitable sequel, call me!), and there’s more that would need to be done — especially with the Na’vi characters. But in the end, Sully’s sick father is saved by the Na’vi, Quaritch is defeated, the Na’vi’s communal culture proves more robust than Quaritch’s angry, manipulative false honor, which is really just a mask for corporate greed. You get basically the same themes, but you also get a richer, more nuanced, and — hopefully — more action-packed tale.