The Avatar Soundtrack is Bollocks

avatar

It really is. At times it almost gets there; a sub-Adiemus collection of vaguely ‘tribal’ noises begins to thrum and ululate, and it almost, almost sweeps you away into the thrill of an exotic otherworld. But then James Horner gets scared, and that warm, reassuring Hollywood symphony comes right back in. It’s okay, baby, look; it’s still just a movie. It still plays by the rules. Saccharine crescendos scream “FIGHT SCENE” so explicitly that you’re denied the opportunity to watch it by yourself.

According to Wiki, Horner worked with an ethnomusicographer to create a musical culture for the Na’Vi, and using that, “first created a score that reflected the Na’vi way of sound and then combined it with a separate “traditional” score to drive the film.” Why would you even do that? Once you’ve embarked on that fascinating, imaginative project of creating an entire fictional musical culture, what possible instinct would lead an artist to then say “okay, so we’ve got the weird stuff, now let’s make sure it still sounds like a movie?”

This problem repeats throughout the film. Musically, narratively, creatively. Potentially superb ideas are formed, and then let down in the latter stages of development by a violent swerve to the status quo. The most interesting moments are glossed over in order to prolong the cookie-cutter Hollywoodisms, or let down by instinctive recourse to sentimentality. There’s great material in there. For example: the explanation that planet Pandora’s entire ecosystem is connected by links equivalent to synaptic pathways between neurons is, good science or not, very good science-fiction, and a great leaping-point for allegorical discussion about humanity’s corruption of its own planet. It’s also used extremely well in the narrative—when the animals join in the final battle, it’s a logical conclusion of background information presented to us in the film, while still being a surprise to the viewer. Excellent construction. And yet, and yet. When the rhinos charge, we’re only given half a second to wonder about their inbuilt tendency to defend their ecosystem, before it is hammered down our throats that the mother-nature-figure “Eywa” has answered Jake’s call. Diegetic syrup, and lazy.

Furthermore, the whole film is undermined by an assumption of idiocy in its audience. No alien world should be called ‘Pandora’ unless you want your viewers to know right from the get-go that it’s going to prove full of troubles and destruction leading to an ultimately optimistic conclusion. And no super-valuable substance which provides the catalyst for the entire plot should ever be called UNOB-FUCKING-TANIUM. Thinly veiled allegory for oil or no, it also needs to be given a purpose. We’re told that U-F-tanium fetches ‘20 million a kilo’, but given no hint as to why. A quick Google shows that Avatar wikis online give plenty of reasons, but that’s nowhere near good enough. It’s fine to have additional background information stored in meta-fiction; the appendices to Herbert’s Dune are a perfect example. But if something’s the entire motivation of your villains, then as a writer, you do your audience the decency of including it (and clearly) in your central narrative. Capiche, Cameron?

Actually, that’s one of the biggest problems, certainly in terms of narrative, with the highest-grossing-film-of-all-time*. It doesn’t have enough space—because it’s far too short. Yes, short. Avatar sometimes comes close to being divine, one of those stories that you feel embodies an essential primal narrative shape, which needs to be told. But unfortunately, it’s about two great films, plus one incredibly boring and conventional one, all stitched together with blue-(geddit?)-tac.

For my money, if Avatar was a novel, a medium where intelligence and creativity in narrative structure are still allowed some degree of leeway, it would be two books/films, or more likely a trilogy. When Jake and Pocahontas the Blue mate for life, that’s your end point of book/film 1, a positive ending symbolising the end of Jake’s training period, and laced with the hints of greater struggles to come. Then you’d have far more room in the preceding stages for those direly-needed explanations, and much less tendency to rush us through montages showing much of the most fascinating material—the anthropology of the Na’Vi, the fear Jake experiences when first lost in the forests, the internal struggles between Sigourney Weaver and Colonel Nastyface. These need space to breathe, time to be dealt with in depth. And don’t tell me there isn’t an audience for this more expansive approach, there fucking is. Remember The Lord of the Rings?

Then films two and three could stand on their own merits, without needing to wedge in explanatory material retrospectively. The section where Jake becomes Morat To’Raken (geek joke, anyone? Okay, the bit where he swaps his big fighting bird for an even bigger scarier fighting bird) could become an actual quest featuring trials and difficulty and its own internal story, not a done-and-dusted feat taking all of half a montage. Jake’s reconciliation with Neytiri’s** ex-fiancée could have some emotional depth. That spectacular final battle could retain its impressive and necessary length, without feeling like it took up half the movie by doing so, because the supporting material would, well, support a battle of that length. Again, LoTR, people. Helm’s Deep. I suspect that Jackson only got to structure his trilogy so well because the Hollywood money people knew that the audience was already there, but haven’t they learned anything in its wake? People will flock to see an immaculately realised secondary-world fantasy. People will love a world created well.

So why am I writing all this now, two years after the offending work was released? Mostly, because I just watched it again, and it struck me as a perfect example of the things that really, really annoy me about cinema. Movies are the flagship form of fiction right now. They’re the dominant mode by which people consume narratives. But time and time, and time again, they’re lazy, and conformist. Nearly every movie that reaches the cinema is predictable; you watch it knowing where the emotional hooks are going to lie, when the highs and lows will occur, what the shape of the whole film will be. Even if you don’t know who the killer is, you know that there is one, and pretty much exactly when his identity will be revealed. And if somehow you get lost, and forget what you’re meant to be feeling at any given point, the music will always, always tell you. A swell of strings means its time to feel triumphant, kids!

Fantasy/sci-fi is a good genre to mine for examples because it’s so event-led, leading to an easily analysed plotline. But it’s far from the only victim of this malaise. It runs through everything cinematic, from rom-coms to po-faced Oscar-fodder dramas. But looking at fantasy again, is it any surprise that so much of the better cinematic fantasy has been that which has dared to spurn the standard plot demands of the feature film? Star Wars was a trilogy, so too LoTR. The excellent Sky adaptation of Pratchett’s Hogfather was two long TV Movies. HBO’s current riotously successful Game of Thrones is a whole series, and apparently they’re eyeing up Gaiman’s American Gods next (note also the profusion of book adaptations; works that have already said NO, THIS is how my story goes, and fuck your script class). Only the most brutally succinct fantastic narrative – 300, Pitch Black, PotC – works within the confines that Hollywood dictates.

I’m not saying we should only have arthouse movies. I’m not saying that screenwriting classes shouldn’t teach three-act-structure and where to put the Moment of Death. We need mainstream cinema, and writers need to know the tools at their disposal. Neither am I saying that you can’t do great things with the standard movie template. Horror films tend to adhere to it and still be effective, and it works sublimely for those glossy philosopho-thrillers like The Matrix and Fight Club. But it should be an option, and a format to be played with, and it should be more than one movie in ten or twenty that makes me think “well, that was fresh and original.” Because too, too many movies are predictable, and tired, and dull.

So next time you write a sci-fi of massive scope and creativity, Cameron, don’t worry about what a film ought to be, and ask what it can be. And next time your composer has an idea as exciting as writing your fictional planet an entire musical culture, don’t allow him to then water that idea down with “a traditional score to drive the film”. Because that’s every little bit as heinous as humanity raping Pandora of its precious deposits of, what was it again? Oh yes, unobtani…

…or maybe there’s no hope at all.

P.S.: I have to say, I’m a little worried about the kind of reaction this article might get if it gets spotted by Avatar ultras, after spending research time listening to the soundtrack again on YouTube, and looking at the comments below the videos. Here’s a few little examples…

Reasons to Remain
This person, for example, may be a little optimistic...
Reasons to Remain
...while this fan verges on 'unhinged'.
Reasons to Remain
What I love about this guy is that he's done all that nice number-crunching, but still lazily asserts that life is an exact 1/1000,000 chance per planet
Reasons to Remain
And then, there's this. You sardists ^^

*Not strictly relevant, but do remember that this stat is largely bogus; inflation means that cinema tickets cost more than they used to, ergo the same number of viewers can make a higher grossing film. And Avatar came out in 3D.

** I went on Google to double-check her name. The 9th suggested result is ‘Neytiri and Jake mating’. Some people…

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2 thoughts on “The Avatar Soundtrack is Bollocks

  1. Aran, man. Its been a month and 2 days. There is a void in my life which witty blogs used to fill. Hope you all good… and alive (as being not all alive is generally sad).

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