Would it surprise you to learn that Avatar is a formula movie? In my last blog about structure I said that structure is a three act play with two short acts at either end of a long, constantly turning act. Avatar follows he formula exactly, but it’s so well done it’s actually hard to see.
Avatar is about a marine who thinks he will never walk again because, although it is possible to repair damaged spinal cords, he doesn’t have the money or a prayer of getting the money. His inciting incident is his decision to fill his dead twin brother’s shoes in the Avatar program on the planet Pandora. His decision is colored by the offer to repair his spine – and return his legs – that is made by his superior officer. His decision looks like it’s going to solve all his problems.
Now comes the first interesting problem solution. This man is a marine with a mission, a warrior by his own definition. Yet in the world of set up and pay off that is movies, he has to be perceived as having the ability to change into a compassionate leader – to move from the Knight to the King – which is not always a logical move. Strangely, there’s no direct dialogue to support that perception, rather there is a shot on his face of loving compassion when he first sees the Avatar body he’s about to inherit from his dead brother. A look and a statement of how much he looks like his identical twin that opens the door to possibility. It’s remarkably out of character, but it establishes that there’s more than meets the eye to this professional soldier. There is depth and warmth that lurks under the warrior that can translate into something unexpected.
The track that is the rest of the movie twists every 10-15 minutes, sometimes less, back and forth between the world of the Avatar among the Aborigines – the natives of Pandora battling to save their planet from the ravishment of greedy business men – men only concerned with their bottom line, back to the world of the businessmen in which the marine serves as a spy. It moves the marine toward being in support of the Aborigines. It moves the Avatar ever – closer to a leadership position within the Aboriginal community and an appreciation of the magnificence of what they are. Parallel change and growth occur in both the marine and the Avatar.
Another interesting problem solution is how to change the Avatar from a Knight to a Prince. In this movie you are dealing with major archetypes. In the world of archetypes Knights fight for Kings, they rarely become Kings – Robin Hood fought for King Richard the Lion Hearted, he did not become King. Knights may get the girl, they rarely get to marry them – Lancelot won the heart of the fair Guinevere, he didn’t get to marry her. In Avatar the marine is chosen by the Princess to become her Prince Consort thereby elevating him from Knight to Prince. Princes can become Kings.
Finally there is the Visit to the Valley of Death when the scientific unit, in which the marine is resting his human body, while conjoined with his Avatar, is breached and he begins to die of lack of oxygen. He is in total jeopardy and his Avatar body cannot function without him.
He is restored of course, the Avatar triumphs and there is resolution which I won’t spoil for you. It’s a perfect execution of a formula movie. And the special effects are stunning. It seems that special effects can now convey whatever a movie visionary can envision.
I’ve heard that it was a weak script and it is a little long in parts because of the Director’s well justified infatuation with the special effects, but it’s not all that weak. It’s not Star Wars, it didn’t leave me breathless, but it’s a really nice ride and well worth seeing in theaters and owning on DVD. It’s relevant to today and the problems faced by our country and particularly our professional soldiers. It’s a perfect statement of the ruthless greed of big corporations. It has lots going for it and lots in it and James Cameron deserves kudos for creating yet another brilliant classic.