Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar: Some Possible Alternate Endings

The reviews have come in. It’s groundbreaking – a masterpiece of motion capture, a triumph of space jungle world-building. Record numbers of people didn't feel like they were just watching James Cameron play a very expensive video game. And I have to give it props for the pacing and cinematic technique, which made the story stick... Cameron has a knack for making a narrative seem interesting and profound.

Still, my opinion of the film in general is strongly in the camp of Elisabeth from Cinematical and Annalee Newitz from io9. I had fun, and cheered at the big hits, but my troublesome critical brain couldn’t stop saying things like, "Why are the aliens so much like African/Native American/Aboriginal people?"

But as they say, don't criticize if you can't come up with an alternative. In that spirit, I hereby offer some suggestions on other ways Avatar could have played out… maybe with fewer clich├ęs, or less obvious about its white guilt fantasies, or even just less predictably. When I see the movie again, I'll be hoping the ending magically transforms into one of these. So without further ado, wouldn’t it be awesome if:


1) The humans drop a nuke on Home Tree, and Sully, having foreknowledge of this plan, is the only one able to escape. He becomes the sole bearer of the Nav’i legacy, and through his influence, the Earth eventually learns of its crimes. However, failing to find solace in his own lifetime, he dies destitute and frustrated.

2) The Nav'i do what makes the most sense when they find out Jake was always with the humans: they cut off his head, eviscerate his body, and send the remains back to his comrades. They then disappear into the forest, abandoning Home Tree, and use their planet’s neural network to mount a grueling, two-hundred year guerilla defense against the human invaders, which is ultimately successful in driving them away.

3) The Nav'i reveal to Jake that they not only invented their own modern weaponry… they’ve fully evolved past needing it. When the invaders arrive with ships and tanks, the tribal elders simply dismantle the metal with their secret psycho-kinetic powers, and the human invaders are left naked in the woods to be eaten by giant cats.

4) The Nav'i and Jake Sully escape, and the humans occupy Home Tree and the Ancestor Tree (or whatever it is), only to discover that the Nav'i aren’t the dominant species on Pandora after all... the trees are actually the most intelligent species, and they use the non-sentient animals as appendages. The "animal assault" from the actual movie then ensues, but without the Nav'i even bothering to help; the planet just uses its various indigenous animals to pound the human invaders into tapioca pudding.

5) With Jake's help, the humans destroy the Nav'i, and then discover that their psychic connection with the surrounding plant-life was generating a centripedal force that was keeping the planet in orbit. Within hours, Pandora drifts off its orbit and crashes into the nearby planet, killing everybody there.

6) When Jake tames his Banshee and becomes initiated, Neytiri realizes that humans are, in fact, superior to her own race (after all, he did in months what it takes them their whole lives to accomplish). She asks him to bring her back to the military base, where she informs him that she’s defecting, and together they help the humans crush and enslave the Nav'i. She then has an affair with Colonel Quaritch. When Sully finds out, he challenges the Colonel in single combat, and kills him using the skills he learned as a Nav'i. Neytiri sees her old lover, now a Nav'i warrior, murder her new lover, the human champion; she subsequently realizes she contributed to the genocide of her own race, and commits suicide by jumping off the back of her Banshee a thousand feet above the ruins of the Ancestor Tree.

7) When Jake enters his Avatar and attempts to lead the Nav'i to war, the simulation suddenly ends. A human military psychologist informs him that Pandora is actually a training facility, and the "Avatar" experience was a virtual reality evaluation of his conviction and patriotism; as he followed the call of nature on an alien planet and the glory of being a champion to the locals, he has obviously failed. He has to return home with a dishonorable discharge.

8) After the destruction of Home Tree, Jake becomes an advocate for the Nav’i, but he’s written off as a fanatical hippy with PTSD. The humans start second-guessing their militaristic approach and regretting their cruelty to the natives, but only after they’ve killed most of the Nav’i, or shuttered them into small encampments and denied them any good education or representation. Eventually, all that remains of Nav'i culture is cheap stereotypes, cottage industry hand-crafts, and casinos. Two hundred years later, one of Sully's great grandsons makes a movie about their plight, but reimagines it with a human leading them to victory and freedom.

1] Orson Scott Card ending
2] Battle of Algiers ending
3] Ian Banks ending
4] Gaia Theory ending
5] I don’t know where I got this idea.
6] Greek Tragedy ending
7] Wizard of Oz ending
8] Just completing the implicit analogy here

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A quick reflection on David Cronenberg's The Brood

I just saw The Brood, a Cronenberg film from 1979, just preceding his much-lauded Scanners and Videodrome. What a movie... what issues. This body horror opus is a tangle of neuroses about motherhood, psychotherapy, parents, parenting, and physical wholeness. It doesn't provide a particularly fair representation of either mental illness or the mental health profession, and its climatic scene does what Cronenberg is famous for: it uses sickening effects to express deep psychological anxieties about flesh... creating an aversive bridge between body and mind, which are so brutally separated in Western society.

In this way, Cronenberg's work could be read as a critique of Cartesian dualism and the longstanding mind-body difference that infects Western culture. Dr. Raglan's techniques are based on an essential opposition to dualism, asserting that we can't get the body out of the mind, or vice versa. In a practice that was fixated for some time on the idea of unearthing hidden memories and experiences, what could be a more complete method of exposing those repressed feelings than by manifesting them on the body itself? Psychoplasmics seems to be based, at least in part, on the idea that psychological damage can be treated more easily as physical damage.

If this is true, then Dr. Raglan's biggest problem is that he assumes "expressing" these anxieties automatically solves them... that by creating welts on his body, Mikey is fixing the underlying damage that those welts are expressing. The film makes it clear that this is simply not the case: expressed anger and anxiety, left untreated, are just as damaging as repressed anxiety. Again, this could be read as a critique... in this case, a critique of psychoanalysis itself.

Psychological trauma aside, there's something about this movie that makes it relentlessly uncomfortable, and I think it's 70's aesthetic. The Shining benefited from the same effect... the grainy film, the earth tones that seem to suggest mud and soil, the red and yellow accents that suggest body fluids, and the shadows that seem ready to swallow you whole... there's something creepy about that decade, isn't there? In my opinion, it beats the hell out of a lot of our highly-saturated horror movies, shot through blue filters with conspicuous red bursts here and there. The houses in The Ring and Drag Me To Hell feel like they were build ten minutes before the movie was made, and the space feels too scripted. The woods and wooden shacks and attic apartments of the 70's... these are spontaneous, empty spaces, quietly genuine in their loneliness.

For a bit of a longer reminiscence on this topic, mentioning a few of the same concepts that I mention, but with more information on the actual technical qualities of the film: Q Branch on The Brood. Also, this is where I stole the picture.