CAUTION: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS, ELEMENTS OF SATIRE AND VILLAINS IN SWIVELLY CHAIRS
A young hero, uncertain of his abilities, is one day convinced that he is serving the wrong masters and beliefs. His saviour from servitude is a woman of high status, perhaps even a princess, who leads him into the tutelage or protection of a wise figure, often male, who leads from the front. On the way, they acquire sidekicks who provide comedy through their selfish actions. They will also meet someone who competes for the princess’ attentions. There will also be an oracular figure, retired from the Great Fight , who does not believe that the hero is spiritually ready for his journey. At some point, the older male wisdom figure will sacrifice himself to protect the hero. This gives the young hero the impetus needed to face the Big Bad. But it turns out that the Big Bad is not so different from the hero, and is really just in the service of a Bigger Bad in a Big (Often Swivelly) Chair.
What movie am I talking about? Is it Star Wars? Is it The Matrix? Am I maybe talking about the Legend of King Arthur? Hell, even Austin Powers fulfils many of these criteria quite knowingly.
Actually, I’m talking about all and none of them. What I’m really doing is gearing up to troll people’s glib opinions about the film Avatar, a perfectly well-executed movie that it’s just oh-so-fashionable to hate because – drumroll please … “It’s just Pocahontas / Dances with Wolves / Ferngully in Space, and that makes it awful!”
… and then of course I ask the utterer specific questions about those three films and they blush because they’ve never even bloody seen a single one of them. Yes, the story of Avatar is recycled – but so is the story of any of your favourite big event movies.
What’s genuinely criminal is that the above opinion is recycled. You heard some beard-stroking, pretentious pseudo-intellectual say it and now you parrot it to bask in the reflected cleverness.
But you are not clever. It took the fact that they are both set in a jungle / primitive wilderness for you to recognise it was the same story, and you utterly failed to notice that all these other ‘wildly original and creative films’ are the same story wearing a selection of different suits.
Is a Ferrari rubbish because it has four wheels and so does a Lada? No. It has its own specific set of merits and faults; so does Avatar. Over at Indiewire you will see how we pre-judged Avatar by its faintest resemblance to other movies and began deriding it before we even saw it. So… if a film is rubbish because it resembles another in some way, doesn’t it mean that those ten films all resemble eachother too and are thus utter garbage? Including Return of The King and District 9? If you must judge a film, judge it by its own strengths and weakness. Glib comparisons are a poor shortcut to actual thinking, and it’s an embarrassment to everyone with their own individual taste and judgment –which are easily perverted by popular opinion as I will cover in the section Cultural Edifice Complex later.
Of course you are likely to be scratching your head and saying, “hang on – how the hell is The Matrix the same as Star Wars? And how does Austin Powers fit in here?” The more astute and well-versed movie-nerds among you may even be guffawing at my omission of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress – the movie which George Lucas openly admits he stole the entire basic plotline of Star Wars from. Neither of those films is particularly dreadful, by the way.
There are so many comparisons and parallels that this article could take forever, so I’ll tackle the basic ones.
Let’s look at the heroes first. In Avatar, Jake Sully has lost his legs and also bought into the belief that he is as dumb as a sack of bricks. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is crippled by his Aunt and Uncle’s insistence that he stay behind and help with the harvest.
What are they both doing? Well, Sully serves an evil military industrial complex and soon learns that a bunch of fiercely independent tribes-people of a different race have a ‘better world-view’. Luke whines that he wants to join the fleet academy, an organisation run by the evil Galactic Empire. But, of course, he ends up with the Rebel Alliance – a collection of fiercely independent different races.
Austin Powers doubts his mojo (the Force, but for sex?) and, considering how values have changed, doubts he is serving the rights organisation . Anderson / Neo in The Matrix leads an equally dreary existence serving a mean-spirited software firm.
All of them, eventually, are contacted by a woman of high status (Leaia, Netyri, Yuki, Trinity)who leads them away. Of course, all the Big Bads in Swivelly Chairs play on these insecurities during the denouement of each story.
Sully meets Dr Grace Augustine – a wise, older woman with a confrontational streak who tries to teach him the ‘right way’. Morpheus is the wise older man with a confrontational streak who frees Neo’s mind. Obi-Wan Kenobi, General Makabe, Merlin … you get the picture, right? Oh, yeah, they all either come under threat or die to help the hero mature. Kenobi lets Vader destroy his mortal body. Morpheus throws himself into Agent Smith’s path to save Neo. Pocahontas’ father is shot at by Ratcliffe. It’s all the same junk.
Figures senior to the martial wise man, such as Yoda or the Oracle from The Matrix, dismiss the hero’s ability and becomes a boundary.
Neo becomes more machine-like, and Smith becomes more human. Vader is Luke’s dad, and still has good within him, whereas Luke brushes with the Dark Side in their final duel. Colonel Quaritch has strong loyalty and duty motives to mankind, much like Sully’s acquired motives toward the Na’vi. As Dr Evil says to Austin Powers, “we’re not so different you and I.” Having struggled against Number Two, Powers faces Dr Evil, at which point Number Two refuses to kill Powers. Vader refuses to kill Luke. Smith cannot kill Neo but must instead become one with him. The Ultimate Swivel Chair Baddies – The Architect, Emperor Palpatine, Parker Selfridge, Governor Ratcliffe, Jaffar from Aladdin for heaven’s sake … all of them rule primarily through sinister intellect and social authority rather than naked force. It’s all eerily similar.
The more I think about it, the more films look the same. In Robocop, an ordinary man undergoes a transformation that gives him superhuman powers, breaks from the directives of his makers when reminded of who he really is by a woman, and faces off against a Big Bad who is backed by a Bigger Bad in a Swivelly Chair. A few years later, Verhoeven made Total Recall, a film in which –wait for it – an ordinary man undergoes a transformation to a superhuman agent, runs into a woman called Melina who shows him the truth way and introduces him to Quatto, your all-in-one wiseman and oracle figure. Along the way he fights a Big Bad who is backed by a Bigger Bad in a Swivelly Chair. In both films, the swivel chaired mastermind is played by Ronnie Cox! To make things even better, both the Big Bads are balding and … holy shit! In Return of the Jedi, when Vader’s mask is removed … HE’S BALD AS WELL! In Hook, it turns out Captain Hook is bald under the curly wig! Oh my god these films are all such derivative garbage! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE JUST STOP THE BALDNESS!
If you’re going to be critical of Avatar because of what it shares with Dances With Wolves or more usually Pocahontas, you may as well attack it for being similar in terms of its basic plot movements and character tropes to The Matrix, that in turn for being a rip off of Star Wars, that in turn for being a rip-off of The Hidden Fortress. Django Unchained has a very similar formula. That formula is known as ‘monomyth’ and it’s been observed for decades. Just Google it. Then go to tvtropes.org to learn more about how everything is exactly the same.
…Or you can attack Avatar for its numerous actual faults. For example, Cameron fails in making us sympathise with the Na'vi because they themselves are a bunch of hypocritical, racist, discriminatory, fickle and deceitful assholes who are also dumb enough to think that just because Sully comes back with a bigger dinosaur that he can be trusted. I mean really - if the backstabber at work drives in tomorrow with a Mercedes and not the clapped out Ford they are riding in today, do you trust them more? Nope. The Direct Agency Villain, Quaritch, is the only character in the movie who is honest about his intentions, consistently risks his own life for his loyalties, and keeps his promises. Avatar should be renamed The Assassination of Miles Quaritch by the Coward Jake Sully. It’s really a tragedy about how a noble man is laid low by a traitor who just wants to get laid. A most misunderstood film.
The question still remains – why is it that people will routinely launch such a shallow, second-hand attack on Avatar yet often aggrandise stories that are – apart from the most superficial trappings – exactly the same as it? We are all suffering under a …
Cultural Edifice Complex
To an extent we all want to be seen as clever due to where our tastes lie. This makes us very easily swayed to conform to the views of culturally recognised Beard Strokers, and immensely hypocritical to boot.
For example, James Cameron made it very clear before the release of Avatar that he was deliberately referencing Golden Age sci-fi from the 60s and 70s, right down to the ludicrous ‘unobtainium’. He clearly set out to create a visually engaging piece of pulp sci-fi, with gorgeous design and bold characters. Smartness wasn’t part of the remit. He succeeded. Yet we attack him for his intentions, still deride the naming conventions, and whinge about how derivative his work is.
Quentin Tarantino does EXACTLY THE SAME DAMNED THING and we hail him as a ‘genius’ for being referential about old exploitation cinema. Perhaps Cameron’s only mistake was not to lay it on thick enough? Speaking of laying it on thick, what the hell was going on with the last ten minutes of Django Unchained? As soon as Waltz stops playing an active role, switch off your TV. You’ll save yourself a sudden agonising switch to stagey, pantomime acting, random silly dressage stunts that don’t fit in with anything that happened before, and what I’m hoping is simply heavy handed irony in which Django loses his Nietzschean battle and basically becomes the white man.
The reason for this disparity in our tastes is simply reputation. Critics give a film-maker or individual film a reputation for something and (so long as they stick to the famed feature) they can do no wrong. Despite being a turgid, slow, listless, preachy, Sociology-textbook bothering mess, The Dark Knight goes unchallenged as an ‘awesome film’ by many. Their reason? “Dunno. Just an awesome film.” You give them reasons why it isn’t and you are shouted down as a tasteless philistine who just didn’t understand the movie. The Joker’s famous question, “why so serious?” has been answered. It’s because people will buy any tripe if it’s packaged correctly.
The truth is these people are just upset that you blew the game. You proved them wrong, you showed that they are sheep following a trendy opinion. That made them angry because they wanted to look clever for liking that film, and so they attack you rather than explain reasons why the film or director is actually any good.
We make statues of directors and palaces of films; the effect becomes like being an English person saying something against the Monarchy or soldiers serving in the Middle East. A knee-jerking tide of tribal buffoons descends upon you with cries of “How dare you! These are fundamental institutions without which our society would crumble!”
No, they aren’t. Many republics, such as America, do just fine. Japan copes on the world stage without an extra-national army. They all have their faults and merits, which other examples of the type can easily fill in for. A film not directed by Tarantino or Nolan can do just fine without. Just make sure you’re examining the real faults and merits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David M. Jackson sat in a big swivelly chair cackling maniacally as he wrote this article. When he isn’t sending his balding minions to confront youthful, insecure heroes he teaches and sometimes writes in exchange for Unobtanium (which money might as well be in Britain’s current economy).
You can feed his despicable lust for gold buying his first novel by clicking here.
It’s called ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity’ and sees cybernetically enhanced super-cop Jennifer Carter uncover a terrible plot to overthrow the British government while on the run from the very institution she is trying to save.
It’s very violent, which he knows you’ll love because you’re a sadist. It’s mainly racists that get hurt, so it’s OK.
He recommends waiting a while for the improved second edition, because the formatting didn’t transfer properly to all devices, goddammit!
More from David M. Jackson at I Love That Film: