Avatar and the Numbskull to Budget Ratio

I’ll start off by saying that I did think Avatar was an entertaining movie. I did not get bored despite it’s nearly 3-hour length and I think that’s a testament to Cameron’s abilities.

What I did not find Avatar to be was a deep, moving, or particularly intelligent movie. It was an exercise in safe mediocrity when it comes to plot, a story imminently predictable from the first trailer on and not one that ever surprised me. For all of its convincing visual alien-ness, Avatar was nothing if not straightforward. And I’m not even sure I’d be willing to say that this is, inherently, a Bad Thing.

The cinematic language of movies allow for certain levels of complexity at the expense (or addition) of certain levels of emotional pallet. A psychological thriller can twist and turn and shock in its unraveling of the story because the central plot motivator is the exploits of a disturbed individual or individuals. In other words, it maintains structural parallelism with its subject. A political drama can move at a much more subdued pace because the power of the story lurks in the import of characters’ words and decisions more than their actions. An action movie simply needs to go. Anything that detracts from this momentum does so at risk to the fun.

So what about a love story? This is ostensibly the thrust of the movie according to Cameron. Romance is a common element to movies because its sugary sweetness can up the palatability of any story and its motivations and outcomes are easy to relate to. The reason boy always gets girl is because that’s a satisfying conclusion and a nice parallel to whatever other structural conflict the characters have triumphed over. A love story though is presumably about that relationship as a primacy in the plot, not an addendum. I think Avatar is arguably in this category, although I’d still say it’s more of an action story.

The start is our young, disabled hero getting introduced to the wider world. I like to think of this as “farmboy out to save his village” with an inversion – Jake Sully’s ignorance of the world he enters is a trait shared with the broader cast, not an exception. So Jake grows and learns, our Karate Kid montage phase. Then he falls in love. Then it goes to pieces. Then he saves the day. These are gross simplifications but effective ones and the basic sort of Hero’s Journey structure that Campbell would identify in an instant. The fact this movie has been successfully compared to so many others should tell you how universal its design is. This is simplicity. It is refined, well-acted, engaging, and utterly straightforward.

What perplexes me are those I’ve read and spoken to who went into Avatar with the expectation of anything more than this. They seem to be under the impression that Cameron doesn’t know how to tell anything other than an underwrought story but I don’t think that’s true at all. Because Avatar is a shining example of the Numbskell to Budget Ratio in effect.

Simply stated, the Numbskell to Budget Ratio is as follows:

The more money (X) spent on the production, the more numbskulls (Y) it must appeal to.

To elaborate, the more money spent, the more risk involved in the venture. The more risk involved, the more measures must be taken to recoup the cost. How does one recoup cost? Get more people to see the movie. How do you get more people to see the movie? Broaden its appeal. How do you broaden its appeal? Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The sad reality is that audiences looking for an SF movie out of Hollywood that both engages their brains and their eyeballs are going to be waiting for a long, long time. The studios tried that once. It was called Blade Runner and it was an un-mitigated disaster (in the short term at least. I don’t think long term success is a viable profit model for studios anyways.)

To put it in more agreeable terms, the 100 million dollar plus special effects extravaganza is never going to go for subtlety or controversy or complexity because it cannot afford to. And to some extent, we are the victims of our own success. Nobody goes into Iron Man expecting philosophical treatises on the nature of just war doctrine because even though that would be well within the bounds of its canon and even – handled well – enjoyable, it would not appeal to the lowest common denominator. And when you start dumping money of that magnitude into a movie, you need the Numbskull audience. You need the guy (or gal) who wants to look at shooty things and cars that go fast and explosions and sex jokes and boy gets girl hooray!

The Avatar is a wonderful example of this because it’s an SF movie and it is monumentally expensive. So I posit this – Avatar could not afford to be anything other than a straightforward action-romance with great visuals because anything more wouldn’t sell enough tickets to make back what was spent. That’s all there is to it folks. There is no conspiracy afoot except the conspiracy of the almighty dollar sign.

If you want a thinking man’s sci fi film, look for those with modest budgets. Look for the Moons and the Solarises and keep your fingers crossed that someone down the line will eventually have the balls to take a risk and buck this trend. Just don’t expect WETA Workshop to be involved when they do.

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