Unjust Criticism

Posted Wednesday, February 3, 2010, 1:59 PM

Avatar has ticked over to be the biggest box-office hit in the history of film, beating James Cameron's previous movie, Titanic, and in a faster timeframe. Now, despite its achievement being trumpeted far and wide, box office take is an unfair measurement, because many other factors helped it to reach this milestone.

Firstly, this number is based on money earned, and not ticket sales; it doesn't accurately compare how many people have actually watched the films. Inflation of ticket prices, for one thing, make a difference. Plus, the ticket prices for 3D showings are higher than 2D, so compared to Titanic, for example, the 3D tickets in 2010 cost nearly twice as much as regular 2D tickets did in 1997.

The novelty of 3D is also a drawcard. Many people, both established fans and newcomers, are drawn to Avatar's cunning use of 3D to enhance the experience, rather than dazzle like a flashy gimmick, and those who have not gone to a 3D film have been enticed into letting Avatar be their introduction to it. More 3D showings coupled with it requiring more expensive tickets, is a potent combination.

On top of that is the fact that Avatar was released worldwide at the same time, a rarity now but virtually unheard of in pre-1995, so it has been less impacted by piracy, and is lucky enough to capitalise on the immediacy of online buzz and promotion. So, though it certainly does have a role to play in the machinations of movie production, you and I can't judge its success just on box office income.

Avatar has its fair share of critics, though. They tend to pick on its simplistic storyline, borrowed as it is from many films of the past, such as Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Ferngully, and even The Smurfs.

They claim it has borrowed liberally from standard tropes, reducing it to a simplistic retelling of a familiar, and flawed, tale. "The Noble Savage" trope is the one I see mentioned most often, which is the assumption that a primitive culture, with its connection and reverence to nature, is inherently good and honourable, as opposed to the cruel and selfish nature of "civilised" man.

The problem with that is the movie clearly shows that the Na'vi have a literal link to Eywa (Gaia), through a biological connector that all the native creatures possess, which they use to join their body and mind to each other. Plus the planet has a literal central nervous system, actually physically located in itself. They do have a connection with Nature, and there it makes sense for them to be more respectful towards it.

Other tropes include the weapon- and destruction-mad military leader, the corrupt corporate executive, the turncoat within the ranks, and, most obvious of all, the interloper who falls in love with the Chief's daughter. But every story has its tropes. They say there are only a few storylines anyway, and every story ever told takes elements from those and twists them into something new.

James Cameron had a few agendas he was trying to fulfil. First and foremost, he had a feast of visuals he wanted to showcase. The easiest way to do that is to have a simple, and not a complex, storyline to let us explore the world as we watch. Second, he had new technology he wanted to play with, and utilise as fully as he could. He managed to do that by having 75% of the story take place in Pandora's jungles, where all the characters are virtual CGI creations. And, by definition, the Na'vi lead simple lives, and therefore have simple characterisations.

And he was also trying to entertain. There's a fine line between complex and complicated. In the past decade, there have been only three movie series that have seriously contended the Titanic throne of success. They are The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Harry Potter.

Lord of the Rings had the toughest job, in having to take a long and multi-layered storyline, revered amongst nerds everywhere, and reduce it down to nine hours of solid entertainment. This required heavy excision, rearrangement, and simplification.

Harry Potter was based on simple storylines, but very very long books, so had to take out huge swathes of subplot to keep them down to watchable lengths.

Both of those plot-altering decisions were lambasted by purists and nerds who have too much time on their hands. And yet, despite this: box-office slam-dunk blockbusters, every man jack of them.

But Pirates of the Caribbean had almost an open canvas, and used that as an opportunity to prove that complexity can have a place in a fun fantasy adventure, if you want. This was not the best thing it could have done, as the last of the trilogy was generally considered the lesser, simply because its complex characters and storyline confused and irritated too many (Though I do not count myself among them, as I absolutely loved it, especially after watching it repeatedly on DVD where the plot starts to straighten itself out more).

What does that, and Avatar's success, prove? That simplicity can be great, and is often better than unnecessary complexity. Complicated multi-layered plots and characters are perfectly suited for a family drama or political thriller, but all a fantasy adventure needs are simple, straightforward, excuses for fun and excitement. Anything more is just inviting criticism and confusion, and, worse, impending box-office failure.

Having said that, I have no doubts that James Cameron's plans for the sequel, which will inevitably arrive sooner than you'd think, is to amp up the ante in both visuals and storyline. He won't fall back on a rehash of what he's already told, and will need to develop a few extra levels of complexity to keep everyone's attention. And, just as I was with the expectation of Avatar's runaway success, I am confident that he will deliver it again.

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