“You’ve never experienced anything like it,” gushed the LA Times about Avatar, James Cameron’s motion-capture extravaganza. And if you aren’t a Cameron connoisseur or an avid gamer, you might put all stock in the novelty of cutting-edge illusion and feel just as effusive. I may not have experienced the marvels of Avatar bundled together into one parcel until now, or its “game-changing” 3D effects, but I still felt like I’d been down this road before. Not to say I wasn’t left breathless by the film’s look or thrilled by its outstanding action sequences; if I checked my watch once or twice, it wasn’t during the climactic battle between airships and dragon-mounted archers, which swept me up into a gleeful place six feet above my chair. Avatar is for the eyes and breast. It’s achingly beautiful, a 70mm version of World of Warcraft’s loveliest zone, Zangarmarsh, with its humid, violet luminescence, its drifting tendrils, its spots of blood-red, and its alien fungal forms. But it’s not an original. It’s a realm that pervaded twentieth-century fantasy illustration and late twentieth-century games like American McGee’s Alice, but Cameron shouldn’t be faulted for grasping that realm’s allure and reproducing it in its finest form to date. There’s no reason why the visual feast of better video game art direction shouldn’t be adapted for the multiplex. It’s evident that Cameron himself feels this way. He suggests as much in the movie’s title and premise.
Avatar is set in the future, after humans have de-greened the Earth and mastered intergalactic flight. Big industry has enlisted scientists and the US military to help them colonize Pandora and extract its precious ore. The new planet presents an old complication, however: the biggest deposit lies under territory inhabited by a tribe of indigenous Na’vi (a half-anagramic play on native), whose size, prowess and near-indestructible bones hinder the humans’ quest. Enter Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), whose Avatar program is expected to level the playing field by inserting the consciousness of human operatives into bodies similar to those of the locals. Strong, feline, and ten feet tall, the avatars take getting used to, but they’re perfectly adapted to Pandora’s environment. Thrust into one of these bodies is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who’s assigned the avatar genetically designed for a dead brother. He makes half-hearted statements about accepting the mission in exchange for spinal surgery, but we glean his real motive; the big blue bodies are the stuff of human dreams. Sully yearns to do what many of us wish we can: experience unlimited physical intelligence in a form just shy of immortal.
Some walk away from Avatar exhilarated by its action, realm and special effects. Others are left disappointed by its clichés, its eye-rolling dialogue and its amateur-hour narrative. I get where both types of viewer are coming from, because I experienced both sensations in equal measure. This review is neither a rave nor a pan, but a dig-in-my-heels demand for better. I can forgive a film a lot if the visuals are fat enough, but I expected more from a Cameron SF/action movie, especially one that’s been gestating for over a decade. The man who (along with John McTiernan) defined the American action movie in the 80s and 90s needs to bring it to the next level in 2009. Instead we’re handed stale devices that worked in Terminator, T2, Aliens and The Abyss, but which have lost impact after years of mimicry: the despotic military official from The Abyss and the oily corporate henchman from Aliens; a battle-royal in a steel monkey-suit (Ripley’s Aliens showdown is reversed, with the baddie in the suit and the hero in the alien’s form); the female genius whose creation goes awry (Grace is a ringer for Lindsey in The Abyss) and the plucky female pilot who navigates like a dream but still ends up dead; Sigourney freaking Weaver making her entrance out of a cryonic sleeping pod (Cameron’s only moment of self-awareness falls flat); the Destruction of the Big Thing—not an ocean liner or submarine mining rig this time, but a gigantic tree that relies on the same sound-effect as the Titanic and the rig when it keels. Cameron even recycles dialogue. We hear double when Grace calls Colonel Quaritch “Ranger Rick” as she scolds him about ethics (Lindsey calls Lt. Coffey “Roger Ramjet” during the same set-up in The Abyss). We expect a degree of consistency from our directors, but Cameron uses old inventions like a crutch that can’t leverage him out of a serious narrative rut. There’s a difference between a signature and a do-over, and Cameron’s self-imitation is parodic. There’s just too much of it.
What little wonder exists in Avatar, besides the larger wonder of its visual effects, resides in its mythology. Nothing much is new here, but that’s okay when you’re dealing in myth; that’s how these frameworks function. Still, it takes a special kind of hack to turn a venerable archetype (Sully is yet another Chosen One) into a blundering cliché that struggles to win hearts in our post-colonial era. Pandora’s neural network, which connects goddess and ancestor to animal and vegetable, is rendered so beautifully that Cameron’s patronizing, mangled politics can almost be forgiven. The Na’vi bind themselves to their mounts with braids that turn out to be external auxiliary spinal columns of a sort (powerful ones that appeal to the chair-bound Sully). This bond between life forms is supposed to celebrate mother-earth philosophies, but Cameron gaffs his political correctness when Sully uses colonial words like “You’re mine!” when he claims his mount. The film is riddled with these missteps that constantly undermine what little invention exists onscreen. Cameron is being praised for his attention to detail (Pandora’s world, the Na’vi tongue), but his focus falls short where it counts. He neglects details of character, conversation and theme, the latter of which is all over the place, poxed by lazy contradiction, knocked aside in the filmmakers’ haste to hop us up on their eye-candy. Their “game-changing” line rings hollow if the meat remains the same or—worse—falls short of Cameron’s earlier dedication to story and character, which made Sarah Connor and Bud Brigman substantial enough.
I haven’t detailed the project’s whiz-bang technology or its problematic politics, since both these subjects have been treated ad nauseam elsewhere. I went into Avatar as a fan of Cameron’s SF/action films, expectations taut, so that’s the fairest way to approach this review. That inner fan was let down. The gamer in me was also intrigued and somewhat more mollified—and to bring up video games in the same breath as Avatar is no insult. In fact, the concept of games and their place in our culture is one of the few motifs Cameron nails, and it partially salvaged the film for me. The imagery of places that delight me in another “life” (the oozy purples of Zangarmarsh and the floating mountains-with-waterfalls of WoW’s Nagrand) connect not accidentally to the movie’s concept. Disabled Sully represents earthbound us, and his obsession with Pandora—his eagerness to return to the fantastic blue body of his avatar each day—has all the hallmarks of gamer addiction. Grace chides him for neglecting to eat and bathe; Sully’s too eager to earn rep with the Na’vi and graduate from mount to flying mount to epic flying mount (WoW players spot the pattern and know his satisfaction). It’s deliberate. We’re supposed to think of video games when we hear the title of Cameron’s movie and revel in Sully’s thrills. But those of us who need narrative substance in our films to make up for the thinness of animated faces onscreen—who can’t get past the lack of texture that CGI continues to present—feel shortchanged. Between the gut-churning speeches, the conventional soundtrack, the ham-fisted anti-oil, anti-imperialism, and anti-Iraq messaging, and the recycled everything, there’s not much sophistication here, and not much beyond the 3D effects or the realm itself to earn the finicky viewer’s kudos. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, on January 2, 2010.)