- What’s Good: James Cameron’s dedication to the material is admirable. His ability to sell this half formed, totally unoriginal sci-fi story is masterful.
- What’s Not:“A New World” meets “Dances with Wolves” meets “Aliens” meets “Princess Mononokie” meets “Fern Gully in Space.” A lot meets here. What there are not a lot of however is new ideas. Cameron’s inability to make the aliens ALIENS is confounding. Cameron is like a sane version Michael Bay who fetichizes the military war complex while denouncing it it at the same time. I’m also sore that Michael Biehn and/or Bill Paxton are not in this movie but Sigourney Weaver is so that’s cool.
Science Fiction has enjoyed its most prosperous year of the young century. The genre has not been this fecund since the year “Matrix,” “Princess Mononokie” and “Star Wars: Episode I” came out. It has also not been this overrated in years though I must admit that the sci-fi purist in me fears mainstream involvement in this genre so I’m naturally defensive. This year though: first “Star Trek” crammed that cocky, shit eating Kirk (Chris “I’m awesome!” Pine) down our throats. Then “District 9” turned a story of alien apartheid into an inept retelling of “Transformers.” Then, um, yeah, the bland “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” came out and, astoundingly, was not as bad as everyone made it out to be. Now “Avatar” has come to rule them all.
There is very little doubt that this 300-500 million production will not only make a tidy profit but may go on to become the third or even second highest grossing film in U.S. history right below James Cameron’s other blunt edged epic “Titanic.” “Avatar” is a vivid contradiction that poses the question of how could something so stark and visionary can be so unoriginal. Easy, it’s made by Cameron. Aww, nah man, I kid, I kid, the dude’s earned my respect many times over; Cameron’s work in this genre includes masterpieces like “Terminator,” “T2” (his most overrated film but still good by any other standards) “The Abyss” (his most underrated), and “Aliens” (an A+++++ film) are unparalleled in genre defining qualities that, “Abyss” aside, shoot first and ask questions later. That Cameron’s reputation precedes him is perhaps why I expect more from him especially given his decade long, post “Titanic” hiatus. The expectations are not so much in the storytelling department but in the powerful ways in which he is usually able to approaches stories. The result here is a mixed bag full of minor technical miracles and major storytelling blunders and a curious lack of real danger posed to the protagonist.
This save-the-rain-forest adventure set on a planet known as Pandora (that’s, uh, symbolism, right?) brings virtually no new ideas to the table. Instead, it grafts new technology over old ideas. The ground it does tread it treads competently, but with all the narrative grace of one of the film’s tree smashing mega bulldozers. What we get here is a hearty retelling of a good vs. evil, man vs. machine, and nature vs technology tale in which an ex military grunt, working as a Backwater-esq soldier for hire, goes undercover and, before he knows what hits him, goes native. The central gimmick is that humans are now able to fuse human and alien DNA to harvest bodies known as Avatars. These proxy creatures can be possessed via cryo-sleeping humans! In their dreams! Nonsense! Yet nonsense that Cameron is able to sell effectively because everything else is so meticulously mapped out. Avatars are essentially flesh based video game characters and the hero, Jake (another original Cameron hero name–totally more original than Jack), gets a mean case of chosen-one-itis when he puts this new body to use. This avatar concept in one sense gives the film a semi-original approach(if you don’t count the other Avatar-ish “Surrogates” this year) while at the same time removes me from an investment in the immediacy of the hero’s situation since he’s not really there. The Avatar driven hybrids and, for that matter, indigenous aliens known as the Na’vi (which sounds like a snazzy name for a laptop or mp3 player) look convincing and at times posses flawlessly rendered realism but their design is a bit awkward. Their flat noses, strange heads, stupid tribal marks and grotesque bodies gave me, among other things, really bad “Antz” flashbacks.
The plot is so far from exceptional that it gives a new name to the term space opera. There is a lot of politics (and politicking) and tropical/topical parallels to imperial America, sure, but really this is just an space set “Romeo and Juliet” story involving a boy trying to win the heart and mind of the girl and her community. He is accepted by the alien clan all too easily and masters their ways in a manner of weeks. This story element takes up about two hours of the film so expect lots of iridescent plant life, prancing about and forced moments of adventure (Jake trying to tame one wild animal or another). There are enough 90s era Disney cliches here to fool me into thinking characters are on the verge of breaking into a show tune any minute. Lucky they don’t; unluckily, though, James Horner does and his score and it’s full of tritely recycled melodies.
The rest is of the film (and entire third act) is vintage Cameron hoorah military hokum. Humans invade a peaceful, nature loving planet rich in precious minerals whose value to the new, resource depleted Earth is never fully explained. I’ve always loved sci-fi for the ways in which it is able to encode progressive message into the text. These days all sci-fi subtext has become text because we’re obviously too stupid to get the message if it’s in any way subtle. While Cameron is being praised for creating a new world, all I see here is “A New World.” While the romance is nothing new, the post colonial aspects are even more worn. First off, I mentioned that the hero enters this community like a space age Jesus (or Tom Cruse or Kevin Costner etc.) and that undercuts a lot of the supposed autonomous integrity these “savage” creatures have. In addition to that the cultural tropes are obtuse. I have no idea why people bash George Lucas’s anthropological aliens when this film’s egregious mess of Earth based stereotypes gets received with near unanimous approval and cultural cache. These creatures are Ewok’s squared. The peaceful and simple subaltern alien race (Others are aliens, get it!) are a crude amalgamation of African, Aboriginal and American Indian cultures and icons. What bothers me is that Cameron makes no attempt to make these alien underdogs actually alien. I just can’t understand how something so ambitious can be so lazy. Is this a prime example of unintentional leftist racism or just bad writing? Whatever the case, the humans of “Avatar” are just as one dimensional (ironic that this is 3D then, huh?) with bullheaded military men, egg headed business men, even headed mentors and a Jarheaded hero played by Terminator Salvation’s Sam Worthington.
While I could go on about what bothers me there’s a lot to admire in “Avatar.” Sure, the visuals pop with a musty green brilliance and eerie fog but what I like most about the film is the way it inverts the sci-fi cliche of making humans the evil invaders (weare aliens) while having the viewer relate to the little (actually, large) blue space men. Heading up the invading force is a wonderfully wicked performance by Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) as the evil, Duke Nukem looking Colonel who steals the movie through the simple act of bringing some color, dimension and fire to a morally black and white story universe. Too many characters, yes even my dear Sigourney Weaver as the all too noble scientist in charge, are cardboard cut outs that this bad ass Colonel shreds to hell with his his twenty foot mech’s giant-sized machete. Now, as to why a fricken mech needs a big ass knife is something I’ll have to add to the pile of things I don’t get about this movie. Anyways, after all this inane, semi-incoherent ranting I’m going to put aside my objections and give “Avatar” a (barley) passing grade. I do so with caution and the illogical self awareness that I don’t always need to like a science fiction movie to like it.