Oh James Cameron, how far you have fallen. This simplistic Disney-esque cartoon (Pocahontas in the stars, essentially), roided up with technology and space marines is the latest low point in his downward spiral. It's hard to believe that this film was created by the man who gave us two of the most intelligent, hyper-efficient action films of all time in The Terminator and Aliens and even, initially, managed to temper his fetish for spectacle with solid story and character work in Terminator 2. Avatar represents a complete turn to the dark side where Cameron stands side by side with George Lucas in prioritizing technology over writing/plot/characters, creating a childish pretense at an epic sci-fi story.
Said story is absolutely ridiculous, seemingly dashed out by Cameron years ago as an excuse to play with shiny toys. His hype-machine claims that he had to wait till technology caught up with his story and vision are, in retrospective, quite funny. The story's been done (better) by numerous others (see The New World) and as for vision, well...Exhibit A: Princess Mononoke. It's a bunch of paternalistic and preachy nonsense about human ambassadors being plugged into an alien society (via the titular avatars) to clear the path for the colonizing Company that wishes to raze a holy site to mine...get this...unobtainium! Geeky in-joke to laugh-out-loud stupid in one step. Naturally, our hero - played by Sam Worthington who is Michael Biehn with all the limited range and none of the scrappy B-movie appeal - decides to go native and ends up becoming more native than the natives, more human than human, the saviour of all things Na'vi. With the help of the aliens, a trash-talking Latina marine (certainly no Private Vasquez) and Ripley minus the badass, he takes on the Company as represented by psychotic Colonel Quaritch and evil corporate flunky Selfridge (definitely no Carter Burke).
There is little more to the story . Cue 'soaring through the flora and fauna' sequence as representation of spiritual freedom, a metaphor made even more thudding by the fact that our hero is wheelchair bound in his human form. Cue 'falling for a native' sequence, complete with enormous watery doe eyes (undoubtedly easier to CGI in an emotionally compelling way than human-size eyes). Cue tribal coming-of-age, medicine women, jealous natives and final spears vs bullets showdowns. The film is a 160 minute collection of every cliche you can imagine. The screenplay does little to alleviate the pain, rehashing stock dialogue from a million other films ("You are not in Kansas anymore!") and giving the actors almost nothing to work with. Contrast Stephen Lang's restrained and powerful performance in Public Enemies with the scene-chewing caricature you see here and it illustrates just how terribly Cameron wastes the few decent actors he did round up for this project.
There is a definite place for 'stupid and simplistic' in action sci-fi of this kind (I've lost count of how many times I've watched The Road Warrior) but it is clear that Cameron aspires toward 'deep and meaningful' and that the film needs to be judged on that basis. Much has been made of the film's politics and whether they're liberal or conservative. Honestly, each side of the spectrum should be happy to concede this movie to the other, given how badly thought out it is. The environmental and anti-colonial messages (however much I may agree with them) are preachily executed and done to death, not to mention under-cut by the fact that the white man saves the day and is better at tree-hugging than all the tree-huggers. The racial undertones are condescending and tedious - the N'avi embody every stereotype of Native American culture that has pervaded pop culture in the last century. And how did Cameron go from Ellen Ripley, one of the greatest female action heroes in modern cinema, to "You're a warrior now. You can choose your woman"? It only makes me more inclined to believe that he didn't think a single aspect of his execrable screenplay through and recycled a lifetime's worth of bad-movie-watching into his word processor over the course of one drunken night.
So, are there any saving graces? Many have forgiven the terrible story and characters due to the enjoyment derived from the immersive alien world Cameron has created. While the technical abilities of his crew cannot be faulted, even the world did not actually do that much for me. Technology requires the foundation of imagination and inspired character design. In my book, Avatar did not provide this. The Na'vi designs are flat and boring and barely even alien. They are simply ten foot tall, gangly humans with some catlike features and blue skin, reminiscent of Smurfs crossed with Thundercats. They even cry and kiss and chant and eat. So much for alien civilizations. The world itself, gorgeous and beautifully rendered as it is, resembles a hundred other jungle paradises I have seen in videogames, films, comics and TV shows. For all the technology, the first appearance of the Na'vi does not begin to measure up to the first time a xenomorph comes onscreen in Alien or when human special effect Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a knife to his eyeball in Cameron's own The Terminator to show us what lies underneath. The technology behind those characters was comparatively primitive but it was used to animate designs that, in my opinion, were infinitely more creative than the ones on display in Avatar.
I will give the film this - Cameron still knows how to stage an action sequence or two. It was quite an achievement on his part that even though the film was nearly three hours long and had a story that reaches Lucas-ian nadirs of awfulness, I didn't nod off once. The final battle between the Na'vi and the Company forces is undeniably exciting and Cameron, true to form, uses mecha-based combat in an entertaining fashion. It's all shot and edited very well and moves along at a good pace. Best thing I can say about it, really.
This film has been hailed as the future of cinema for a long time now, way before it even hit theaters and if this is the case, we are all doomed. As filmmakers like Cameron rely more and more upon technology, writing and acting and other old fashioned human being-ish activities take a backseat, much to the detriment of the movie. Ridley Scott has already shown interest in using Avatar's FX technology for his upcoming adaptation of Joe Haldeman's seminal and jaw-droppingly affecting sci fi/war novel The Forever War and I am keeping my fingers crossed that he remembers that there's a story to tell underneath all the CGI. Having technology overwhelm a terrible story is one thing but it would be a tragedy if a preoccupation with spectacle was to compromise an adaption of Haldeman's book which is - at heart - about very human experiences. Curious that Cameron started off with a film like The Terminator (I'm not counting his directorial debut Piranha II!) which is one of the more paranoid cautionary tales about the dangers of tech-dependence that I can recall. I only wish Cameron would go back to those tech-noirish roots and forget about being king of the world for a little while.
My IMDB rating of the movie: 3/10