Posted by: kshayes513 | January 1, 2010

Watching Avatar

The floating mountains of Pandora. All images, 20th Century Fox

Two and a half hours can seem endless in a movie, or it can go by in a flash. In Avatar, it does both. There’s no drag anywhere in this movie, no scenes where you might sneak out to the rest room without missing something significant. The storytelling pace is admirably balanced between adventure, humor, intimacy, catastrophe, helpless rage, and pure wonder, and the time flies by.

Yet at the same time, you come out of Avatar feeling as if much more than a couple of hours has passed. As if, in fact, you’ve just made the trip of a lifetime. This two-hour visit to Pandora is the nearest any of us may come to experiencing an alien world – at least, until James Cameron makes more Avatar movies, and other entertainment prodigies come up with still more immersive technologies than Cameron’s wondrous 3D motion capture.

Some might say that, culturally and biologically, the world of Pandora is thin, and rather stereotyped. And so it would be, if Avatar were a novel. For a movie, though, the level of original worldbuilding is extraordinary.  I can’t remember anything comparable since Star Wars. And James Cameron is a much more thoughtful worldbuilder than George Lucas.  [some spoilers ahead]

In a book there’s time to explore the minute details of a specific future scenario and of a new alien world. You can explain the history of how the Earth got into such a fix that it spends countless billions sending expeditions to a distant planet just for one mineral. You can lay out detailed alien botany and zoology, and reveal how the specific beliefs and customs of Pandora’s Na’vi make them distinct from familiar human tribal societies, and tribal stereotypes.

The Tree of Souls

In a movie there just isn’t time, especially a movie aiming for broad audience appeal (just to earn back its massive budget!). That kind of detail would stop the story dead and bore half the general audience. A movie has to paint in broad, recognizable strokes, especially when it’s first introducing a strange world. So we get a quick sketch of a distant Earth where the environment has been devastated and brushfire wars are the norm; then, through the eyes of crippled veteran Jake, we start to learn about a lush alien world where a race of tribal hunter-gatherers live in harmony with their environment.

Even in a book, you can’t go too deep when you’re introducing a world. You have to provide enough of the basics to keep your audience entertained and interested, but no more. Just look at the difference in narrative depth between, for example, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and its sequels; or the early Discworld novels compared to the latest ones.  What we learn in the first two thirds of Avatar about that future Earth and about the Na’vi is enough that when the two societies finally go toe to toe, we have all the information we need to understand exactly what’s at stake. We’ve already learned to value what the invaders want destroy, and we are desperate for Jake to find a way to protect the Na’vi and their world from still greater destruction.

Neytiri's war paint

We learn enough for this story, but I’d bet a great deal that Cameron knows much more about Pandora than he shows us here.*  Everywhere, the script has hints of worldbuilding depth, especially around the Na’vi.  They talk of recent and mythic history; they adopt specific body ornaments and decoration for different events; they know other clans who live in very different environments than the rain forest.

Most important, they have the Bond. When the Earth scientists and the Na’vi first talk about their deity, Eywa, we assume that she is a religious belief, like human tribal deities. So it’s a stunner to understand, late in the movie, that Eywa is real even in scientific terms, and that her nature is something entirely beyond human experience. She is the collective consciousness of the entire biosphere, including the Na’vi, who can link to animals and to the forest itself through nerve tendrils in their own bodies.

It would have been easy for Cameron to overload us with details about the Bond and all the rest of his knowledge of Pandora.  And a less experienced storyteller, drunk with the richness of his created world, would have done that, and ended up with a movie that resembled a documentary. We’ve all seen many a first novel that’s so overloaded with the author’s research, that the story is buried in irrelevant information.

This is the lesson that we worldbuilders can learn from Cameron and Avatar: if you want to tell a story, don’t let the worldbuilding get in the way. Show your audience only what they need to know about your world for this story, and save all the rest for another time. Because if you put the story first, there will be another time.

Update, Jan 5:

*I wish I had bet with someone, because I think I just won this bet. Avatar has an in-universe tie-in book on the natural history and society of Pandora. It’s over 200 pages! Even with pictures, that’s a lot of worldbuilding. Even the few pages available for reading on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature are just spilling over with new environments and story ideas. The book itself suggests a sequel movie plot, as it purports to be a handbook for human activists bent on protecting Pandora from further exploitation. And with Avatar now past the global $1 billion mark, there will definitely be a sequel.


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