Two centuries and $75 billion in the making, Avatar has received strong reviews and big box office, though I personally found it to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s an amazing looking movie — especially in 3D — but it seems like director and writer James Cameron spent all that time working on the visuals when he could have taken a few more passes on the script.
As I’ve made pretty clear on the show before, I’m a huge James Cameron fan. I can quote the whole screenplays to Aliens and T2 by heart, and I really enjoy his other work (caveat: I haven’t seen Piranha Part Two: The Spawning). Avatar is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for more than 10 years, since I read early script reviews of it back in the mid-’90s. Especially then, the idea seemed amazing: Cameron uses computer generated images to build an entire world. It seemed like the high-concept sci-fi that Cameron is so good at, and the man has always been at the forefront of special effects.
And because we tend to remember Cameron for his directing and groundbreaking visual effects work, I think it’s easy to forget that his movies work also because he’s a skilled writer. Aliens (does any action movie this side of Die Hard have as many quotable lines?) and T2 feature nonstop action and tension while also building strong characters, from the transformation of Ellen Ripley into supreme badass or the surprisingly sweet relationship between a boy and his terminator, Cameron has given us memorable characters with strong arcs. Something like The Abyss is as much a character study as it is a sci-fi epic, and of course Titanic features a pretty good romance in a historical setting. Even in movies like Aliens, Cameron has managed to sketch out memorable supporting characters despite not devoting much time to them: minor roles like Hudson or Vasquez or even Bishop are all basically archetypes more than fleshed out characters, but written with enough wit to make them memorable.
Which, sadly, is more than I can say for Avatar. Instead, Avatar gives us Aliens meets Dances With Wolves. It’s the story of former Marine Jake Sully (played well by Sam Worthington in one of the movie’s stronger performances) who joins up with a sinister corporation to extract some sort of Macguffinite resource from an alien planet. Sully, using a pretty cool bit of plot device technology, gets his mind linked into an “avatar,” an alien body fused with his DNA that allows him to control a giant blue cat alien to try and make nice with the native inhabitants of the planet.
Here is where things go south: the entire blue alien cat society is basically ripped out of the “Noble Savage Cliche” book. They are peaceful people (who are also fierce warriors) in tune with mother nature who just want the humans to stop desecrating the blue alien cat sacred grounds. The blue alien cats have no love for human technology or war and just want to be left alone. In a not-at-all telegraphed plot twist, Sully decides he likes being a blue alien cat better than a human and teams up with them to fight the sinister corporation.
I’m not opposed to this sort of plot on principle. I love Terrence Malick, who has basically made this story five times. But the genius of Malick is to acknowledge that modern, industrial humans can’t just return to nature and have everything be fine. In Malick’s movies, characters bring their baggage (both psychological and otherwise) with them, spoiling and corrupting the very tranquility they seek.
Avatar isn’t really interested in these kinds of questions. The aliens are stunningly rendered using sophisticated motion capture technology that qualifies as the best we’ve ever seen. These are the most compelling computer generated actors we’ve seen, outshining the work Peter Jackson did just a few years ago. But it’s a sign of the movie’s misplaced priorities that the aliens look so good while being so boring.
Almost none of the aliens have distinct personalities, and what little personality they do have can be wiped away in a moment when the plot requires it. One of the tribal leaders hates our hero at first, then later almost immediately comes around when they need to join forces. The blue alien cat love interest has no distinct personality whatsoever — she is a blank slate, seemingly free of all motivation beyond “I love the hero” and “I am a fierce warrior princess.” As is so often the case in poorly written science fiction, the alien society seems entirely homogeneous. If there are any disagreements between any members, we really don’t see them. Do any of them like the humans? Are none of them interested in the human technology? Are we really expected to believe that a sentient race wouldn’t be more interested in mingling with interstellar visitors?
Again, the movie isn’t interested in these sorts of questions, which hurt its attempts to provide an anti-imperial message. It doesn’t take much to view the profit-minded corporation waging war to obtain a scarce resource as an allegory for modern America, but the stereotypes seem at least 150 years too old. The truth is, Americans haven’t been fighting pre-industrial peoples in more than a century, so if I’m intended to view this as a criticism of American foreign policy, it would be nice if the critique seemed at all relevant. There’s no nuance or subtlety at all: imperialism bad, nature good. Military bad, tribal military good.
Frankly, this is the sort of weak storytelling, flat characters, and dull dialogue that became a trademark of the Star Wars franchise during the prequels. I think the comparisons between those films and Avatar are apt: both featured mind-blowing visuals that used the latest in computer generated effects to tell a story that was ultimately pretty lifeless. In both cases the stories attempted to be epics that had something meaningful to say about human society, but in both cases they came up short in that end.
I realize that my review probably makes it sound like I hated the movie. I don’t, but I also don’t hate the Star Wars prequels, either. Like the prequels, Avatar had enough thrilling moments to make it mostly enjoyable. Cameron remains a great director of action scenes and as I mentioned before, the overall look of the movie is pretty stunning. Watching it on the big screen definitely provides some moments of wonder.
Avatar is also the biggest live action 3D release of all time, and in that regard it lives up to the hype. This is the first time I’ve seen a 3D movie where I was mostly glad for the 3D. I got some eye strain at first, but once I got over that got used to the look — the polarized 3D seems to add a bit of blurriness at times that distracts me — some of the 3D moments are breathtaking. It gives me a glimmer of hope for 3D in that some of the most interesting 3D experiences weren’t big action scenes, but simple shots of environments or people. Getting subtle depth cues for the contours of faces is surprisingly effective, and seemed to help the sell the idea that these CGI blue alien cats were actual living, breathing people.
So while I don’t think Avatar is a movie I’ll be watching in 10 years while I’m putting on Aliens for the thousandth time, it was a decent experience. Before the movie came out I told Sam that I thought it would be either a great film or a colossal failure, and it turns out I was wrong about that. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi action movie elevated by some wonderful visuals that never really achieves the greatness I would have hoped for.