What We Can Learn from Blockbusters like Avatar
Or The Art of Keeping Your Message Simple and Hopeful
Blockbusters like Avatar, RRR, John Wick, Terminator, deliver exhilarating entertainment. Entertainment that makes you go ….
Their action scenes keep you breathlessly poised with your butt teetering on the edge of your seat. The set pieces in each movie are skillfully put together and vary in execution, tone, pace and genre as well.
But they share a common DNA strand.
If your desire is to pen a story that will only appeal to a niche so narrow that only a sliver of an audience will get it and not only that, but the audience must hold doctorates in Philosophy, then this article may not be for you.
But if you wish your story to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, then something like RRR will be a good reference.
I won’t go into the plot or the story. If you have not seen it, then treat yourself to three hours of over-the-top action that begins within the first five minutes of the film and does not let up until the end of the third hour. The action is relentless. The emotions and stakes are high. And even though I did not grasp much of the cultural aspects of the movie, it didn’t matter.
Why is that?
I’ll tell you.
Terminator 2 launched James Cameron into the stratosphere of Big Spectacle Action Movie Directors. But strip away all the bombastic action, destruction of big trucks and fireball explosions on the highway, what are you left with?
I’ll tell you.
I remembered watching the first Avatar. At that time, no one had heard of the Na’vi blue creatures. Watching that movie, through a set of special 3D glasses, felt surreal. I was struck by a sense of wonder so acute I felt like a child raised in the harsh desert sands chancing upon a butterfly for the first time.
I was enthralled.
I remembered a scene where a blue Na’vi shed a tear. I saw that teardrop float in the air.
Float towards me.
I reached out my hand to touch that tear drop.
No one saw me touch empty air. Good thing I was watching in the dark along with the rest of the audience, each one of whom was just as wrapped up in their bubbles of wonder as I was. I felt the triumph of finally dominating a fearsome and big flying lizard, bending it to my will and I was righteously indignant at the humans for corrupting and exploiting the resources of the planet. I whooped and hollered (inside my head) as Jake Sully swooped and soared through the jungle like a genetically altered and elongated version of a Blue Tarzan.
It begs the question.
How on earth did James Cameron make me feel for something so alien?
Go even further back before he did Avatar.
Terminator. Aliens 2. Or his major billion-dollar profit making ship sinking movie — Titanic.
Strip away all the action, all the extravagant visual spectacle, erase all of that and what are you left with?
I’ll tell you.
Not profound and obscure themes discussed between scholars of Wittgenstein in the rarefied air of an Oxford University lounge.
But themes that Italians, British, Chinese, Brazilians, French can grasp instantly and talk about in their daily conversations in their versions of a café in each respective country.
Themes that are independent of culture and language.
Themes like –
Brotherhood is Eternal. (RRR)
If a machine can sacrifice itself for a boy, then perhaps humanity still has a chance. (TERMINATOR 2)
Family is Everything. (AVATAR — WAY OF WATER)
These themes express ideas that anyone can grasp. And movies are a great medium for exploring simple ideas that everyone can relate. It may be self-evident, but the lesson here for any writer who wishes to reach a wide audience –
Keep your themes simple.
I would add one more requirement. The themes could be simple, but your belief and philosophy with regards to those themes cannot be cynical. Banish your cynicism and let it fester and wallow in the small trove of niche literature. When it comes to any entertainment for a mass audience, you must fully embrace a certain set of beliefs. You must believe that family is everything. You must with every ounce of your soul, believe that brotherhood is eternal, if your story happened to revolve around that theme. Your entire sequence of events that happen in your story must bring the audience to one and only one conclusion.
That hope is eternal. And no matter how dark everything else might get, darkness will never vanquish that small flicker of light. With patience, and hope, that light will eventually grow in brightness.
Which brings me to Avatar 2 — Way of Water
James Cameron does not bring anything new to the table when it comes to the theme of family. But then he is writing for a global audience. And for a global audience, we just need to be reminded, in the most compelling way, of what it means to be a family. We need to be entertained first before we are fed a moral lesson. And if you succeed in the entertainment part, you will not feel that you have been fed.
Avatar 2 is ground-breaking in its technical wizardry and world-building but without simple and universally understood themes to ground the story, it will not hold your attention for long. The human brain will tire after two hours of relentless assault of your eyes and ears with nothing for your mind to hold on to.
Cameron uses visual spectacle and big rousing set pieces to convey character and emotion. Hence, he cannot rely on long monologues that would interrupt the action. He has to use short succinct phrases to convey a ton of meaning.
Which is why I thought that this time around, I SEE YOU, was so much more effective.
It not only means I love you, as a subtext but goes much deeper. It signifies an acceptance of one’s inner and true self. It is not just a superficial expression of love. It means I finally understand who you are, what you fear, what you dread, your true self.
I see you.
Meaning I am with you all the way, through good times and bad, you can count on me.
I see you.
As we tell our stories, we must remember that if we intend an audience to watch or read and respond, and we want as many as possible to read and watch and respond, then it would do well to dig from the well of these blockbusters.
Always keep focus on themes that transcend language and culture.
Always keep it simple.
Always end with Hope.
For Hope, as Emily Dickinson said, is that thing with feathers that perches in your Soul.