Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Avatar: Minimal Invasive Retcon (beware spoilers; also Matrix spoilers)"

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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