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Monday, January 11, 2010

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):

The first Matrix movie is not bad, right? It almost makes sense. The only thing that doesn't make sense to anyone with the remotest grasp of physics or biology is the assertion that malevolent AIs who destroyed the ecosphere keep humans alive (in, by their own account, the nicest environment that the humans' brains will tolerate) as batteries. Like the little Duracell battery that Morpheus holds up. WTF? Also, Morpheus' apparent lack of a plan (and apparent total unconcern) for what will happen when they kill of the robots and "free" all of the humans to roam the bleak, lifeless, sunless, destroyed earth.

The MIR is hanging like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked: obviously, Morpheus is a terrorist zealot, the AIs are the good guys, and Neo is a dupe. The AIs tried to make peace with the xenophobic humans, the humans freaked out and nuked the world, and now the AIs are devoting an enormous amount of resources to keep their progenitor species alive and as happy as they'll allow themselves to be, and Morpheus is a kamikaze purist all about live free or die, in which both options involve most people dying. Much better, yes?

MIR for Avatar coming up after the cut.

So, Avatar.

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 tobacco plantations mining operations and wanted nothing to do with the English humans any more.

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!

Posted by benrosen at January 11, 2010 08:44 PM | Up to blog

To explain the bombing NOT FROM ORBIT you may still need the military bad guy to be controlled by one of the AIs.

Though it's probably more interesting if he's a willing convert.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 11, 2010 09:02 PM

Are you going to make me watch this movie just so that I can play along?

I'm starting to think that I can go more minimal than you, but I need more data.

Posted by: Dan Percival at January 11, 2010 10:39 PM

Really, really enjoyed this. Thank you for putting words back into the potato mash that movie made of my brain.

Posted by: Ben Parzybok at January 12, 2010 03:09 AM

Regarding The Matrix, your "minimally invasive retcon" is anything but minimal; it destroys the entire "hero's journey" plotline. You might as well add a "and then he woke up" coda and call that a fix.

My retcon for The Matrix has always been that the Machines need humans as a source of "delta brain waves," some property of human brains that they can't generate otherwise. Make that simple substitution, and the movie works fine. (I recently learned that this is not all that different from the original script, in which the Machines are using humans' brains as a massively parallel neural network; this was considered too confusing for audiences, so they opted for the battery idea instead.)

As for Avatar, have you read this comparison of the original treatment and the final film?

Posted by: Ted at January 12, 2010 08:14 AM

I think it's a mistake to position any of these as actually "minimally invasive" -- like "most efficient" code it's a direction for optimization, not an achievable goal. (I suspect there is no non-trivial retcon than which a more parsimonious one cannot be formulated, given the less parsimonious one.)

Posted by: David Moles at January 12, 2010 12:08 PM

Ted: Interesting; the network idea was my preferred explanation for The Matrix before leaving the theater.

Though I think that's slightly different from what I understand Ben as proposing -- it's pretty parsimonious, but more of a rewrite (half a dozen of Morpheus's lines, plus the use of "coppertop" in a couple of places as a casual insult) than a retcon.

Posted by: David Moles at January 12, 2010 12:12 PM

The original treatment (as summarized) looks like it manages to make the movie smarter and dumber at the same time. The Earth/human mission setup /backstory is better, but the Pandora stuff would still start to fall apart about the time Jake sets out to become the Magic Honky.

Posted by: David Moles at January 12, 2010 12:16 PM

Ted, re: Matrix, it depends on what rules you are playing the game by. The game I was proposing is "how could we salvage this movie purely by adding the least amount of backstory?" If you are playing the somewhat similar game of "what is the fewest number of scenes we could reshoot?" then your fix works fine: simply have Morpheus tell Neo that it's delta brainwaves.

But since he didn't, then in the backstory-only version we have to assume that Morpheus is something of a science illiterate and has no good science advisors (which, okay, maybe, but then how are they managing to run Zion on geothermal energy and hydroponics, now that the sky is blacked out?). Or else Morpheus is lying, in which case why? And why is Neo, a 1990's programmer, also a science illiterate? In my game you have to work with what's on the screen.

I would also submit that you are putting too much effort into preserving Matrix as a heroic melodrama, an overrated genre anyway. I think it works beautifully as an ironic tragedy, something like David Mamet's Homicide.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 12, 2010 12:20 PM

David, you are right about the word "minimal". Want to propose another term for the meme? Or shall we just read it as "minimal that I can come up with at present"?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 12, 2010 12:21 PM

My reading of the treatment was skimmy, so I may have missed something, but it seems to me that:

a) it improves a lot on the movie's logic and ethics; the Magic Honky thing is not nearly as painful, since, as far as I can tell, Sully actually is not singled out as the Messiah by the planet, makes some use of human knowledge and engages in actual sabotage (freeing prisoners with stolen identity cards, inciting a large group of Avatar controllers to turn coat), isn't the only one to ride a big bird (Zoes' ex gets one too), doesn't take over the tribe, has his plug pulled in the middle of the fight rather than after kicking the ass of Boyfriend Guy, does not singlehandedly call the planet to action with his "prayer" (sounds more like he contributes an idea to the brainstorming), doesn't seem to take over leadership of the united tribes by becoming the Kwisatz Haderach, etc. There are probably still a lot of problems, but a huge improvement.

b) would have made, therefore, a far, far better TV miniseries -- but a probably even worse movie. For all the headslapping, nauseating aspects of Avatar, it did at least have a basic syntactic mastery of the cinema, and was not as excruciating a movie to watch as The Golden Compass, which had great actors, great sets and costumes, and a brilliant novel to which it was totally faithful, and was utterly unwatchable because it tried to pack the amount of detail shown in that treatment into major motion picture running time.

Given that treatment, Cameron was right to cut, cut, cut. That is still no excuse for what he turned Avatar into.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 12, 2010 12:49 PM

you are putting too much effort into preserving Matrix as a heroic melodrama

Too much effort? I'm rewriting three lines; your summary along takes more wordage. Your retcon also fails to explain how Neo is able to stop bullets in mid-flight, destroy Agent Smith, and fly; those all suggest that Morpheus is actually correct.

More generally, I guess I don't see the point of making radical changes offscreen -- ones that subvert all of the filmmaker's storytelling goals -- to preserve every second that's on screen.

Posted by: Ted at January 12, 2010 08:29 PM

Ted, that's because you're not postmodern enough. Didn't you get the memo about the Death of the Author?

Posted by: David Moles at January 12, 2010 10:16 PM

Ted, to handle your points in turn:

1) Okay, "more effort" is in the eye of the beholder; presumably for you making your script rewrite proposal is as pleasant an excercise as my retcon is for me, so "effort" is misplaced. What I was really trying to say is that I consider a shift of genre from heroic melodrama to ironic tragedy to be an upgrade.

2) My retcon does not fail to explain any such things, because in my retcon Neo is still The One with secret magic powers etc. who Morpheus very correctly recruits as an asset. All that stays. The only difference here is whether super-powered Neo gets recruited by the good guys or the bad guys. In my retcon Morpheus is totally correct, and still a badass: he is, however, also lying about the battery thing.

3) "Ones that subvert all of the filmmaker's storytelling goals" -- you say that like it's a bad thing! That's one of the principal enjoyments of the MIR as a form. Well, not to subvert all the goals; just the ones I hate. Clearly in the case of my objections to Avatar, preserving the filmmaker's goals would be a bad thing.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the game "how would I have changed this script?" But it is less appealing to me because it leaves me in the position of wishing I'd seen that movie -- the slightly different one that would have worked -- and not the one I saw.

This makes me slightly frustrated; whereas imagining that I know the secret backstory which renders the movie I saw just perfect, makes me amused and gleeful.

Your emotional makeup, and mileage, may vary. :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 13, 2010 01:04 PM

Yeah, as we were walking out of the movie theater, one of my friends turns to me and says: So the humans were flying helicopters between floaty islands... why not throw rocks at them? (Or roll boulders, or whatnot.)

So before even leaving the theater, a computer programmer came up with a better battle plan than the movie's space-marine main character.

It took me a little while to realize how colossally stupid the human tactics were, too. Namely the low-flying orbital bomber. Once it's in orbit, all you need are a few rocks to rain down. If the Nav'i could get arrows into orbit, I'd understand everyone surrendering at that point.

The whole wheelchair thing I took as a rich-poor trope. Sure, maybe wheelchairs should have advanced, but I excused it because part of the conceit was that those in power screw over those without. So the rich get new legs or nerve repair or something, while the poor get a technology that's been relatively unchanged for a hundred years. No one has incentive to improve the technology, because no one with money has that problem. Not particularly plausible, but possibly worth the value of the metaphor and incentive in the plot.

But apart from the stupidity of the battle plans on each side, one of the most damning things about the movie for me was the ending.

Hooray, the natives one and just the goody-two-shoes humans are staying.

Well, actually, I'm sure the mining corporation will be back with more firepower, in approximately the amount of time it takes to make a round trip (maybe less if the shuttle is transmitting a synopsis of events). Also, the scientists who were left behind are now living on a planet that doesn't sustain human life with a presumably limited supply of breathable air and food. Hooray?

Posted by: jamesG at January 13, 2010 03:20 PM

Checking for a response and I noticed "the natives one". Obviously, I forgot to include "the mining company zero".

Posted by: jamesG at January 14, 2010 06:21 AM

Exactly right about the more firepower! And the air. Totally. Argh.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 18, 2010 10:34 PM
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