Good writing is the ability to hold the inevitable outcome in one hand, and yet distract and enthral the audience with the other hand. Boiled down to simple truths, perhaps good writing is not what happens, but how it happens. Therefore, the amount of ‘predictability’ in a single movie should not be a measure of its greatness.
Consider Avatar (2009), the highest grossing movie of all time (not acknowledging inflation); masses flocked to the cinemas, a phenomenon that some attest to spectacle alone. However, I would instead argue that Avatar has an expertly-structured screenplay, and that it was the plot that captivated the large percentage of the audience.
The common criticism directed at Avatar is that its story followed the same model as laid down in the likes of FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and more. That is, the fish out of water scenario; a man who is an agent of the enemy becomes lost in or captivated by a new world and its people, and eventually decides to switch sides in order to protect them against the threat of his former allies.
In Avatar, Jake Sully is brought to the alien world of Pandora by the company, an unstoppable corporate giant that is mining the moon for a precious resource, while at the same time disrupting the ecosystem and jeopardizing the future of a native race called the Na’vi. When Jake becomes separated from his colleagues, he is rescued from the dangerous wilds by Neytiri, a Na’vi female. We soon see our hero’s priorities change as he becomes one of the people, unites the various tribes of the moon, and leads a charge against the evil company.
We’ve seen it all before. And don’t for a second believe that James Cameron does not know that either, yet that fails to stop this story model from being any less effective at gripping an audience. In the 2004 movie, The Last Samurai, Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise), is an American war hero on the payroll of the Japanese military, who are looking to squash the remaining samurai with firepower.
After being captured by the samurai, and spared death in order to learn their way of life, we soon see our hero’s priorities change as he becomes one of the people … and leads a charge against the evil Japanese military. Did the fact that you’ve seen a hundred stories like this one before stop you from enjoying this movie?
Well, Avatar tried the same model, and perhaps the amount of internet backlash directed its way is a result of its record breaking profit. In point, a large amount of movie lovers feel somewhat uneasy with the amount of praise that this production received given that they feel it is a carbon copy of other stories. Perhaps they are going to the movies for a different reason than I, or the millions upon millions of people who enjoyed the movie. As, once again, predictability is not the be all and end all of a story.
Cameron often gets criticized for corny dialogue, and, while that can be true on occasions, his ability to structure a story is an enviable skill. It’s the reason why fan-favorites such as Terminator 1, 2, and Aliens are so terrifically paced.
Consider what happens within the first five minutes of Avatar. We learn that Jake, a soldier, had a twin brother, a scientist, who was killed. It turns out that brother had a very important contract with the company involving his own avatar body grown from Na’vi and human DNA, a contract that Jake will now honor instead.
Only three minutes into the movie, we have arrived on Pandora; and by the fifth minute we have learned that Jake is in a wheelchair, and that he needs money for surgery. Also, in a stroke of genius, watch as the military vehicle passes our screen, its tyre riddled with arrows – a signal of things to come – a nod to the threat ‘outside’, and expertly setting up the conflict of machine Vs nature, the company Vs ‘them’.
That is five minutes, people.
By twelve minutes, we have been introduced to Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and his mission. We have also met scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and the company spearhead for this operation, Parker (Giovanni Ribisi). We understand clearly that a huge operation has been underway for some time, with the aim of mining as much of the precious resource, unobtainium, as possible, the majority of which is beneath the alien’s Home Tree, a sacred place.
We also know that Grace is more eager to learn from the natives, rather than disrupt them. She even speaks their language, and has taught many to speak English. She’s going to be leading a scientific team into the wild to further explore the ecosystem, and Jake will be a part of that team.
By twenty-two minutes, Jake has test-driven his Avatar body, and felt the sensation of walking/running once again. He has met Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez), a pilot for the company. And he has also made a deal with Quaritch to report directly to him with intel, and in return the good Colonel will ensure that Jake gets his real legs back.
Once the team are on the ground, things do not go exactly to plan. After a run in with some of Pandora’s fearsome wildlife, Jake is separated from the group and leaps from a waterfall in order to preserve his avatar body from injury. This is the conclusion of the first act, as the story has now taken a new turn. Jake will have to face the wilds of Pandora alone. And he is no science expert like his brother. He’s a soldier, but perhaps that will play to his advantage.
In The Last Samurai, after an encounter with the samurai, Algren has been defeated, but is spared death by the leader, Katsumoto, who is somewhat impressed by Algren’s resistance and will to survive. The new world now has Algren, just as Pandora has now taken Jake Sully.
Now, this is where things get interesting. In the majority of these stories, the hero is now a permanent member of the new world. Algren spends three years with the samurai before returning to the old world in the latter part of Act 2. What is unique about Avatar is that due to the logistics of Jake inhabiting the body of the avatar, he can travel back and forth between the new and the old world. An interesting, and yet challenging take on the formula.
In the first half of Act 2, Jake is rescued from the jungle by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who must kill a wild animal to save Jake from certain death. Neytiri is upset at the animal’s death, and admonishes Jake for upsetting the rhythm of the jungle – man Vs nature again. She wants him to leave at once, but soon changes her tune when the she sees Jake surrounded by the sacred seeds, almost as if Pandora is marking him for greatness. Ah, yes, we get it now, Jake is special.
From the off, Tsu’Tey does not like Jake’s presence one bit. Something interesting about this story is that unlike similar plots where the love rival is either non-existent or extinct, Tsu’Tey remains a permanent force throughout the majority of the movie. And although he goads Jake from afar at times, he’s not a malicious character, or a bad egg by any standards. He is a proud warrior, and not pleased with Jake’s inclusion in the tribe.
In Pocahontas (1995), John Smith’s love rival is Kocoum, who, driven by jealousy and rage, attempts to kill Smith, but is killed himself in the process. In Avatar, Neytiri does not fall in love with Jake because Tsu’Tey is painted out to be a villain, instead she simply chooses Jake over the honorable Tsu’Tey. Interesting female empowerment for Neytiri, not often seen, but that is for another essay.
We continue through Act 2, where Jake balances learning the ways of the tribe with returning to his human body to drop intel to the company. Things are changing, however, as Jake is spending more time in his avatar body, and becoming more deeply ingratiated into Na’vi society. When Neytiri feels that Jake is ready, he captures a ‘banshee’, a flying creature that signals that you are now one of the people.
At this point, both Jake and Neytiri are attacked from above by one gigantic banshee named ‘Toruk’, the most fearsome winged beast on Pandora. We learn that Neytiri’s ancestor once commanded the Toruk and used it to bring peace to all of the tribes.
Back in the military compound, the stakes are rising for Jake as a suspicious Colonel Quaritch tells Jake that he needs to make the Na’vi leave their settlement. Jake doesn’t see how this is possible. To make matters more complicated, Jake is now in love with Neytiri, and they seal that love by mating together.
As the bulldozers arrive and begin to lay waste to the forests, Jake attacks one of the machines, alerting Quaritch to the truth about our hero. Quaritch travels to where Jake is linked up to his avatar, and pulls the plug. Jake is forced to admit that he has failed in his mission, but he begs for one more hour to try to convince the Na’vi to leave.
Back in his avatar body, Jake admits to the Na’vi that he has been working for the company all along, but has now changed allegiances. A devastated Neytiri now wants nothing to do with Jake. Both he and Grace are tied up in their avatar bodies, just as the military onslaught is arriving.
Home Tree is destroyed in one vicious assault. Act 2 comes to a close with Neytiri holding her dead father, all the while screaming at Jake that she never wants to see him again.
As Act 3 begins, Jake and Grace are sprung from military prison by Trudy. Despite Quaritch’s best efforts, they escape and fly to a remote lab where they can access their avatar bodies again. However, Grace has been badly injured during the escape. Once back inside his avatar, Jake decides to crank things up a notch. He captures the fearsome Toruk, and wins back the favor of the Na’vi. He also impresses the proud warrior Tsu’Tey, who now accepts Jake as a brother.
It’s late in the game, but Cameron introduces the idea that Grace’s soul could be saved by being permanently transferred into her avatar body. Despite best efforts, this fails. When the idea is presented to us, it’s not shocking, because Cameron has carefully built the concept that everything on Pandora is connected to one another. Just as the souls of the dead inform the living, it is possible for a human consciousness inhabiting a Na’vi body to make a full transfer. I buy it.
As Quaritch plans a final assault on the Na’vi, in order to wipe them out for good, Jake unites the various tribes of Pandora and leads an assault against his enemy. And now, in the closing minutes, we return to the issue of predictability.
We know that Jake will win. We know that Quaritch will lose. We know that the Na’vi will survive. We don’t know that Jake and Neytiri will stay together, because, after all, even John Smith had to go home to England.
So of the things we know will happen, we’re confident. But we don’t know how they will happen!
When Jake fights Quaritch, the duel begins outside the remote lab where Jake’s real body is connected. After Quaritch defeats Jake’s avatar form, he breaks into the lab and remove’s Jake’s breathing mask. It’s Neytiri who comes to the rescue, killing Quaritch. She arrives just in time to restore Jake’s oxygen mask.
If you have seen The Dark Knight Rises (2012), then you know that Catwoman kills Bane, saving Batman’s life. Why this works without removing any luster from Batman is because Batman has already beaten Bane at his speciality: hand-to-hand combat. Plus, Batman will go on to save the entire people of Gotham in one apparent selfless act.
When Neytiri kills Quaritch, it works because Jake has already united the tribes of Pandora, he has already become the rider of Toruk, and he is willing to lay his life on the line in order to preserve the Na’vi.
There’s time for one last surprise as we see Jake undergo the same transfer ritual that Grace attempted. But this time, it’s a success. As the movie closes, Jake is now fully bonded with his avatar body. He is no longer human, but a Na’vi instead. A full transformation. The new world has accepted him, and he has fully embraced it in return.
It’s not wounded John Smith returning to England as Pocahontas watched from a cliff-top. It’s not Kevin Costner’s Dunbar leaving the tribe in order to protect them. Maybe it’s Nathan Algren returning to the samurai village to spend his life with Taka. It’s that type of ending, but not exactly the same. My point is that while the stories are similar, the way in which the plot unfolds is all together different. Throughout the screenplay, the similar emotional beats are hit, but how we get to them is the fun part.
Predictability is not what is hurting movies. It’s bad writing. And Avatar is not bad writing. It’s an old fable transported to an alien world, with enough derivative to keep it lively and fresh.
In Cameron’s Titanic, the fact that we know the ship will sink does not detract from our enjoyment. As a matter of fact, at the start of the movie they even show us how the ship will sink through computer generated imagery. What keeps us hooked is how our characters will relate to this, and where they will be when the big moment occurs.
For both Avatar and Titanic, the numbers speak for themselves. So, really, the majority of us are not concerned with predictability. We just want to hear a good story … even if we’ve heard it before.