Avatar works. Let’s just state that right up front.
James Cameron has succeeded in applying his considerable skills to directing a film that takes nearly three hours to move with great fanfare from A to B and from B to C. Along the way there is little by way of surprises or depth, and even the casual filmgoer will have little trouble predicting plot turns an hour in advance. In the age of Transformers 2, when most blockbusters are ugly, mean-spirited films, bludgeoning the audience with incoherent noise posing as fun, maybe there is something to be said for a film like Avatar, which uses top notch Hollywood craftsmanship to move in nice clean lines from beginning to end. The good guys win, the bad guys die, and when you stagger back into the parking lot afterwards you don’t feel like demanding you money back. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Ordinarily, I’d say sure. For a normal movie I would say Avatar deserves a nice pat on the back and a sincere “attaboy,” and we could all move on to something more worthy of our time and attention, probably whatever Christopher Nolan is up to.
Ah, but as we all know Avatar is not a normal movie. Avatar is officially a block-busting, record-smashing, line-around-the-block, must see, cultural event. And as is the case with such movies, any discussion of the actual merits of the film in question is quickly hijacked by breathless coverage and hyperbole until it's distorted past all connection to reality. But the reality is this: Avatar is just not that good.
When the dust settles from the current hype storm and audiences revisit the film in the cold light of day, Avatar’s myriad flaws are going to come shining through in digital 3D. It is not going to be pretty.
First and foremost among the film’s shortcomings is the thorough lack of imagination involved in the creation of the alien world of Pandora. The marketing for Avatar has gone to great lengths to label James Cameron a visionary genuis with an imagination to rival Walt Disney or Fritz Lang, but the truth of the matter of is that under the shiny, digital surface there is scarcely an original idea in the whole of Avatar.
Compare that to one of the most genuinely original fantasy films of the modern cinema, Pan’s Labyrinth. That film took the familiar tropes of the fantasty world, including a little girl dealing with fantastic creatures right out of Alice in Wonderland, and twisted them in a way that was totally new. I had never seen those creatures before. I had never seen the magical world bleed through to the real world like it did it in that film. And I certainly had never seen a fairy tale story told with such a pervasive sense of danger before. The whole production took the basic elements of fairy tales and synthesized them top to bottom into something unique.
Although set on an alien world, it is difficult to think of any element of Avatar that is truly alien. The jungle is just an Earth jungle with a smattering of neon bugs and tacky glowing plants. The Pandoran creatures are your standard issue space animals, just like our animals but with an extra horn or eye tacked on. Not really an alien but a “space horse” or a “space rhino”.
Those aren't horses. Those are space horses!
Now that's alien.
The one genuinely other-worldly aspect about the Pandorans is their ability to tangibly connect with nature via gooey biological strings that emerge from their cat tails. This is an idea with great potential that goes woefully unexplored in this film. Rather, Cameron uses this as opportunity to portray the Na'vi as even more simplistically noble and pure than you would expect. Most of the time Hollywood stops short of making Indians genuinely magical, but since these are Native Pandorans instead of Native Americans, Cameron feels free to make their spirituality literal, and the result is the most over-the-top romanticizing of an indigenous people since Disney had Pocahontas taking advice from a talking tree.
It is this unexplored connection between alien and nature that Avatar drops the ball most dramatically. The inevitable conflict between natives and military approaches, and we eagerly wait for the moment when the planet itself will rise up to defend itself. We anticipate the epic - grand sweeping scenes as the fates of worlds are decided. This is the kind of feeling the Lord of the Rings delivered so vividly. I could have forgiven a lot of clunky writing if Cameron had delivered this soaring emotion at the climax. What we get feels more like the Pandoran zoo being let loose, combined with some well-executed but routine action scenes. It's quite a let down.
Grandeur: Shown here in a film that is not Avatar
As for the supposed game changing, take-your-breath-away effects I can only shrug and struggle to scrape together some enthusiasm. Maybe I’m just not tech savvy, but I can’t see anything on display that Lord of the Rings didn’t do just as well, if not better, five years ago. For that matter, I thought Pixar’s Up incorporated 3D more effectively into the movie, but then again Up had a story and characters I cared about.
Don’t get me wrong, the effects certainly are good, and there are a handful of shots where Avatar generates a nice gee-whiz effect, particularly the destruction of the grandest tree on Pandora. But when you get down to it 3D is never going to make a bad movie good, or a dull movie exciting, and during the long, flat midsection of Avatar I would have traded all the 3D in the world for a better screenplay. It did no more to enhance the experience than a decent speaker system. It was honestly a distraction as often as it was an advantage.
What 3D promises
If I can get philosophical for a minute, the reason 3D is never going to be an essential element of the filmgoing experience is because it works against the basic nature of movies. Films work best when they break down our barriers and makes us forget that we are watching a movie at all. 3D does the opposite - always popping out of the screen to dazzle us, taking us out of the story. The irony is that Cameron need not have spent a wealth of time and money on new effects because a great story can already immerse us in a movie better than 3D ever will.
What 3D delivers
Now that Avatar is raking in enough cash for Cameron to build himself an army of solid gold terminators, Hollywood is undoubtedly going to assume that the masses are clamoring for more 3D. We are sure to get a glut of it. I suppose this will be the new reality until a film as big as Avatar goes belly-up and studios realize all the 3D in the world won’t save a crappy movie. The best 3D can hope for is to go unnoticed in a good movie and pick up the slack in a bad one.
I could go on for pages and pages sorting through all Avatar's faults. Like how Cameron seems to have borrowed George Lucas’s ear for dialogue - too many lines of dialogue don’t pass the laugh test. Or how his obvious attempts to ladle political allegory on top of the whole thing clunk terribly (one mention of “shock and awe” in particular is a real forehead slapper) Cameron stock military characters would not have been out of place in last Summer’s G.I. Joe movie. For that matter, all of Cameron’s characters are pretty damn thin. With Titanic you figure Cameron would have learned the value of charismatic actors to cover for mediocre writing, but Sam Worthington in the lead role is a total blank.
But there is little pleasure to be had in beating up on Avatar. I wish there were more guys like Cameron out there swinging for the fences, staking everything on their vision. I am not so cynical as to suggest that Cameron tailor's his visions to maximum marketability. For James Cameron this is what a personal film looks like. Here is a guy whose visions go hand in hand with commerce. I just hope his next vision is less about showing the world effects they’ve never seen before and more about crafting a story we’ve never seen before.
Verdict: Box office success can make a film a lot of things - influential, important, widely discussed – but you can’t buy your way into greatness, and great Avatar is not. The test of time is going to do brutal, merciless things to Avatar, and while the film has some undeniably memorable moments, when the dazzle of the effects wears off over the years the creakiness of the storytelling is going to groan louder and louder. Eventually Avatar is going to join Titanic as a shorthand for hokey filmmaking with mass appeal. 6 out of 10.