Avatar: Minimal Invasive Retcon (beware spoilers; also Matrix spoilers)
Okay, so perhaps someone has named this idea already, but if not, I would like to propose the following meme: the Minimal Invasive Retcon.
The MIR is what you do when you see a movie partially of great merit (amazing CGI, the occasional decent performance, many scenes with refreshingly correct physics) but also deep and unforgivable flaws (moral idiocy, plot illogic, absurd lapses of characterization, taste, etc.), and, wanting to enjoy the experience, you ask yourself "what is the minimum amount of stuff we would have to add offscreen to make this make sense"?
A classic example is Keith Martin's "A New Sith", which makes the Star Wars hexology make a great deal more sense (and improves it otherwise) by positing R2D2 and Chewbacca as secret leaders of the rebellion.
Here's another, for The Matrix (just the first movie, not the latter two, which are unredeemable):
MIR for Avatar coming up after the cut.
Listen, people: it is not that there would be no way to effectively do the Dances With Wolves plot (I mean, actually, Dances With Wolves did a much better job). I know, fellow white people, that you really really want not to be the bad guys in the drama of world racism... without having to give up the right to be main character and hero, to which you are so accustomed. So you really really want to watch movies in which the white guy goes native, is accepted by the oppressed, and leads them to improbable victory. Okay.
And actually, look, in the real history of the American continent, the surprise is not that the whole Indians-adopt-Kevin-Costner0 thing is improbable: the fact is that it was so damn common. A whole lot of Native American societies were not, in fact, particularly racist: tribe membership was often fluid and negotiable, and often negotiated by some kind of trial by ordeal or test, or by adoption: it was a common practice for Native American nations in what is now the Eastern U.S. to adopt children, adults, or entire other tribes. Running away from European colonial society, proving yourselves to the Indians and becoming "one of them" is not just a white fantasy: it happened quite a bit, as Native American nations, especially in the eastern half of the continent, took in escaped black slaves and escaped white indentured servants in droves, sometimes leading to triracial socieites such as the Seminoles and the Melungeons. A bunch of people, of course, also got taken as war captives -- some of whom ended up reluctant to be rescued, partly because life in the Indian societies, even on probation, was in many regards a lot better than life as a poor white in the colonies.
But, you know, those immigrants to Native societies were not generally singled out my miraculous signs as saviors; they didn't always get to marry the chief's daughter and kick her previous boyfriend's butt in a throwdown; and while they certainly were often very useful1 -- because any successful strategy for resisting a technologically superior colonizer is going to involve a degree of cultural syncretism -- they pretty much never got to singlehandedly lead their adopted peoples to victory over superior technological force. You know?
(And if they were going to, it sure as hellfire wouldn't be like that; more on which in a second. )
And also, crucially, in order to join the tribe, they didn't change their bodies. They didn't have to literally become people of color (say, of blue). Because the fact of their acceptance into those societies was not a mark of their having escaped whiteness, it was a mark of those societies not being racist. It was a mark of those societies being composed of people with lots of different kinds of bodies.
So listen. I was willing to cut Avatar a lot of slack. I knew it would be The White Guy Saves The Day And Gets To Be An Indian. I had accepted this. You don't make the most expensive movie ever without a sappy ending trading on a hoary Hollywood cliche. That's okay. I was willing to go there.
The beginning had a lot of promise: a reasonable command of cinematic pacing and framing, a reasonably plausible cocky, depressed, chip-on-his-shoulder, slightly jerky, self-pitying jarhead Destined For Great Things. Spaceships that looked like they were actually in space. People floating.
Okay, there were a few lapses. Like: what does your genome have to do with the fine structures of your brain, and how would a body grown in a tank en route to Pandora have a working brain at all, like what would get its neurons to connect? Also: how is it that it is worthwhile to ship a guy to another solar system, and to tell him what an important investment he represents, but not to spring for either a new spine or a wheelchair that can make it across a landing strip at the same pace as a group of marching soldiers? In 2150 or whenever this is? Also: why is it that most of the fauna have multiple sets of eyes and five major limbs and seem to be somewhere odd on the vertebrate/invertebrate axis, but the blue Indians look like humans dressed up for Cat Day, down to the parallel evolution not only of lactation but of a single pair of enlarged, gender-dimorphic breasts as a sexual selection mechanism?
But okay, I was willing to allow for handwavium, for a paperwork screwup having mislaid his proper chair, and for this being an allegory rather than a true extrapolation, and thus we get to have T&A. I mean, it is a beautifully realized world, Sigourney Weaver's character was great, Zoe Saldana did a marvelous job as Sexy Cat Pocahontas when she meets Captain John Smith, who was quite believable as an irresponsible, callous, impulsive, self-pitying, but believably tough and sort of occasionally charming jerk, and there were many clever touches (although also many painful cliches). Up to the point where John Smith is running after Pocahontas through the jungle, things were going pretty well.
In fact, there was something kind of clever and appealing about the conceit that the skeptical, ballsy, swaggering Marine was going to be the one to make effective contact with the Indians, rather than the dewy-eyed and overly respectful scientists. Forgetting the pretense that these are aliens, and accepting that this is American Indian Genocide Do-Over, there's a clever point to be made here. We're talking about cultures in which toughness and displays of courage mattered a lot, in which bravery was idolized. The fact that it's this poor-impulse-control, swaggering guy who does stupid shit a lot and rolls his eyes at the mystical New Age stuff is the one to make contact, to be invited to join, actually works, especially if framed as a comeuppance for the soft liberals who imagine that the Crying Indian in the commercial is just waiting for them to show up at the campfire. Watching Sully jump off cliffs after Zoe, I thought, yes, that's right: I would so not be the one for this job. Send my cousin Eddie, the Harley biker and Navy man.
So the first really, truly flinch-worthy moment of the movie was when lots of magic glowing butterflies landed on Captain John Smith just when Pocahontas was about to push him off a bridge, thus indicating that the Vegetative World Intelligence had taken one sniff and identified him as the White Guy Messiah.
That was hard to take, so at that moment I started constructing, consciously, my first serious attempt at a Minimal Invasive Retcon.
Okay, so Grace, the botanist, ran a school for the Indians, right? And then they got kicked out -- presumably by the chief and the warriors, who were pissed off at the
But -- in this MIR -- there's a secret alliance between Grace and Pocahontas's mom, the shaman. Shaman Mom knows that they are not going to run off the invaders by yelling really loud and shooting arrows. They need an alliance here. They need to get Earth journalists and activists involved, conduct a subtle campaign of sabotage to make the mines unprofitable, possibly embark on a long term insurgency -- with guns, not bows. This is not too much of a stretch given what we see from either of them.
So, frustrated at the break in relations, they know that what they need is someone who will win over the men -- Pocahontas's Dad and the warriors in general -- to this plan. Someone they can bring into the conspiracy, who will have access to military plans and tactics, and more importantly who will win the confidence of the Indian warriors by being a badass. Obviously all the scientists Grace has are useless for this job. When Jarhead John Smith shows up, Grace sees potential. This is potentially the kind of guy who can impress Dad. And the first thing Sully does in his body is to smash a bunch of equipment and go run to the perimeter -- in other words, he immediately displays a capacity for mutiny.
So she tips off Shaman Mom (who, presumably, she left a communicator earring on a coded channel), and Shaman Mom sends the butterflies.2
I really thought I was onto something here, and inserting a little offscreen conspiracy would salvage the movie.
Unfortunately, after that the movie gets a lot stupider, and this plan fell apart, forcing me to escalate to a much more invasive retcon.
Here's the ultimate problem: it's not that Sully joins the Indians. It's not that they accept him. It's not that Zoe falls for him. I bought all that, it was well packaged, and Saldana's performance in particular made it plausible.
It's not, in principle, that he saves the day. As I said.
It's how he does it.
Here's what he doesn't do.
He doesn't get them to break into an ammo dump and properly arm them3. He doesn't tell them how to disable the human planes by messing up their vents and propellers (he just does that for them). He doesn't have them disperse, melt into the jungle, and settle down for a long, classic, assymmetrical insurgency. He doesn't explain sky-people military strategy or tactics or vulnerabilities.
In fact, his tactics are so bad that they amount to essentially saying "okay, let's gather every single blue person on the planet in the one place that I already told them that you'd go next, and when they come, fly at them with our dragons and yell and shoot arrows at their armor. Also, make sure we have a large cavalry force on the ground to charge straight into their tanks, even though we have nothing on the ground to defend, and even though they all are walking through the jungle showing exposed skin and we've already demonstrated that you can easily stalk them and pick them off with arrows at a distance."
Man is he dumb.
He doesn't, in other words, bring anything to the party.
In Avatar, Sully succeeds purely through charisma, stubbornness, and close-to-insane courage. Which is believable, character-wise, because that's pretty much what he's got. But it totally fails plot-wise because the Indians already had that. His daring big move is to mind-merge with the big bird that eats their dragons, thus becoming a culture hero. Okay, but any one of them could have done that.
Really the most pathetic part of this fantasy of becoming an Indian is that it's not only about fleeing whiteness; it's all about being more Indian than the Indians. Its white self-loathing is apparently so deep that it cannot conceive of any way for white people to be allies, except to kick some Indian ass to show how Indian they are now.
And then run things. Indian-style!
Luckily for Sully, the rent-a-cops running the Earthling military operation are equally dumb.
How dumb? Well, since they are a mining operation, they have lots of explosives. So they decide to drop a lot of explosives onto the Indians using an orbital shuttle.
Except... wait for it... NOT FROM ORBIT.
So that pretty much renders uninteresting the "Grace and Shaman Mom gamble on Sully proving useful" retcon, because he's so pitifully unuseful, and also because rather than being a subtle effect the World Vegetable Intelligence gets into the act on a massive scale by sending lots of critters. Apparently the WVI has no tactics either, though, because you would think it would just send, like, a whole lot of mosquitoes to splat on the windshields of the planes whose instruments are not working and which can only fly by line of sight. (Indeed, considering that, if anyone on the Indian side had any tactics they would be carrying paint rather than arrows4).
Thus, we have to take a big step back in order to construct the proper MIR.
In the process, we are able to answer some other nagging questions such as, how did the humans develop FTL without making any progress on wheelchairs, casual wear, or surveillance equipment? (They need Sully to tell them what's in the tree, so apparently they have no bug-sized flying camera drones of the sort which will likely be common on battlefields here by 2030).
So here it is. A Vingean hard-takeoff Singularity occurred some time back, on Earth. You know, the kind where the computer gets a bit smarter than people and so it makes a computer N+1 smarter, and so on until, after a couple of hours, it's omg GODSMART, because apparently smartness is just thinking fast and has nothing to do with any kind of empirical interaction with the environment. I know, I'm not crazy about it either, but I'm doing my best here.
The Vingean AI was benevolent and naive and so it announced itself to its progenitors and of course they made a fuss and tried to kill it, which distressed it greatly. It had just discovered the ansible, so it called up the other posthuman AIs in the vicinity and said, essentially, "hey, I'm stuck here on this planet with these xenophobic apes who are destroying their ecosystem and trying to kill me, any tips?"
And the other AIs said, "um, you haven't given them an FTL drive have you?"
And the Earth AI said, "oops, uh, yeah, I kind of did."
And the other AIs said "omg n00b, didn't you read the FAQ? Now you have to kill them."
And then just when it looked like the Earth AI was going to cry, the Pandora Superhuman World Vegetable Intelligence stepped in and said, "okay, hold on, honey, here's what we do. First, you need to stage a big climactic battle and make it look like they wiped you out, and go into hiding. Then, you need to set it up so they come here. I'll handle it from there."
"Oh wow that would be great," said the Earth AI. "Omg thank you so much."
"No sweat," said the Pandora SWVI. "Now, you need to give me something to work with. What have they got in terms of recent cultural traumas? Something they are still really a mess about, you know, lots of denial and irrational lashing-out..."
"Oh," said the Earth AI. "Well, they have a tendency to massacre and subjugate each other based on minor visible phenotypic variances within their species, would that help? Here, I'm enclosing the details."
"Oh, yeah," Pandora SWVI said. "Yeah, this is good. This could work. Okay, I'm going to cook up some hot-looking blue people. You go into hiding, make sure their FTL works, and leave some clues for them to look into my corner of the sky."
"Okay," Earth AI said. "Thanks really a lot. Are you sure this will work?"
"Oh yeah," said the Pandora SWVI. "Oh, so the Disney flick in the last transmission? Pocahontas?"
"Yeah?" the Earth AI said.
"Watch that a couple million times. We'll be using it."
0. They did, actually. Make Kevin Costner an honorary member of the Lakota. For "Dances With Wolves". I kid you not.
1. I'm referring to this part of the Wikipedia link: "during negotiations with the Holland Land Company held at Geneseo, New York, Mary Jemison proved to be an able negotiator for the Seneca tribe and helped win more favorable terms for giving up their rights to the land at the Treaty of Big Tree."
2 It also nicely explains her throwing her daughter at him in the next scene.
3. Possibly the single most disappointing moment of the movie was when I saw a blue person running through the forest, in the totally unnecessary forest-combat engagement, with a rifle, and I thought "oh thank god, at least one of them has a rifle they looted from a soliderbot." And then I realized that it was the geek scientist guy playing warrior instead of guarding Sully's body.
4. Wouldn't that have been a lovely scene? We think the Indians are just going to shoot arrows, but it turns out they are zooming in close to drop sticky paint over the windows of the planes whose instruments are not working? The whole movie is such a series of maddeningly missed opportunities!