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Avatar Looks Great, But Falls Short

Written and directed by James Cameron
Fox, 2009

It’s been 12 years since James Cameron came out with his last feature, Titanic, which blew up the box office in such a way that we won’t likely see anything beat it considering this decade’s and future movie-going habits.  Cameron has always been a techie, a guy who likes to push visual effects to the hilt while telling a solid story.  Terminator 2: Judgment Day was once the highest-priced movie to ever hit screens when it was released in 1991, then went on to make half a billion dollars worldwide.  He would top that budget with Titanic, which before its release was being considered another movie set on water that was prepared to bomb in the wake of failures like Waterworld and Cutthroat IslandTitanic would go on to make 1.8 billion worldwide.

With Avatar, Cameron is bringing a picture that is currently being priced at north of $300 million.  With worldwide gross, the movie could very well break even (roughly $600 million must be made initially, but that’s not counting video and merchandise).  Cameron is relying on his track record to justify this movie’s cost, but he had some things going for him with Terminator 2 and Titanic that he doesn’t have with this one.  Terminator 2 already had a built-in audience, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become a huge star since the first film, and it had those money shots of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 turning into some metalized goop to get through barriers and for camouflage.  It was sold as an event and it translated as one.  Titanic had Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of his teenage-girl fandom (think of what’s going on with the Twilight movies right now), and it sold men into the picture with that queasy multi-level camera shot of the Titanic sinking in the water with bodies falling to their deaths and hitting large obstacles on their way down.

As I watched Avatar in both its 2D and 3D formats, I wondered, what does Avatar have going for it that those movies did?  The movie looks cool, but it isn’t selling anything you haven’t seen before.  It’s advertising itself as that, but it’s not showing, and ultimately, it has led a lot of potential customers to scratch their heads and wait for the first wave of buzz to make their decisions.  For me, if you told me you didn’t want to see Avatar, I would tell you that you’re not missing anything, unfortunately.

I’m a James Cameron fan for the most part.  I’ve enjoyed all of his major releases except for The Abyss, which isn’t a bad movie per se but it is definitely a movie in which Cameron was having fun with new technology and special effects at the expense of everything else.  Avatar shares much in common with The Abyss, where the tech exceeds the storytelling.  When the T-1000 in Terminator 2 easily melts through jail bars, that’s plot and action, in addition to being cool as hell.  The 3D world of Avatar serves only one real purpose: it makes the world of Pandora look fantastic and huge unlike any place you’ve ever seen in any film.  If that’s your selling point, then you’ve bought your ticket already.

It’s 2154 and a paraplegic former marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is asked to fill his dead twin brother’s shoes in a government program in which people can tap into other bodies (avatars) and basically mind-control them to do what they need to do.  The avatars in this case are the ten-foot tall blue people known as the Na’vi.  They inhabit a place on a planet named Pandora that is rich with some kind of rock that will help out planet Earth, which has become a near-total wasteland.  A diplomatic battle is being fought on one front, with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) leading the charge, all the while taking samples from the abundance of plants that grow in the area.  On another front, a military consortium is there to try to keep people safe, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), but looks ready to attack at any moment just to drive the Na’vi out at the slightest hint that diplomacy isn’t working.  This is all driven by a corporation trying to mine the rock led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi).

Jake gets lost on a trip to Pandora and is left to fend for himself at night, when many dangerous creatures come looking for prey.  He is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a hot Na’vi chick who is a badass hunter.  Jake, while looking like them, is a stranger to this particular clan of Na’vi, so they agree to take him under their wing with Neytiri’s guidance.  Jake begins to learn their language and religion, and begins to learn that Pandora seems naturally wired, like a living, breathing organism all its own.  The creatures of the planet have the ability to communicate with each other via interlocking strands of hair, or what I’d call “hair jacks.”  There is danger involved with communication between species, there’s still survival instinct at work here.  Like an undercover agent, Jake begins to find himself belonging more to this world than his own, setting up the conflict between he and his own people.

Needless to say, diplomacy is never considered a real option and the military comes in with guns-a-blazin’.  Jake now has to fight alienation from his own race while being exposed as a fraud by his new one.

The immediate issue with Avatar is how many movies you can reasonably say it resembles.  The Matrix, for its “jacking in” aspect, where a person is hooked up to go into a computer-generated world.  Dances with Wolves, in which a white man becomes part of a Native American tribe.  Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in which a primitive people have to find a way to destroy a technologically more advanced enemy.  In fact, Avatar has quite a few other Star Wars similarities with its discussion of how there is an invisible entity flowing through the planet, almost like “The Force.”  Cameron’s own Aliens, with the huge military suits that turn a man into a machine.  You can probably think of more.

I think Cameron misses the mark a couple of times in not developing an idea beyond its simplicities: the “hair jacking” I referred to earlier is used with decent effect here but it could have been something so much more.  Perhaps, if this movie takes off and becomes a trilogy as has been discussed, it will be.  With all these connections in Pandora discussed like a living, breathing thing, it seemed like this could have been used to greater effect when the battle takes place.  There is a scene involving this very thing in which Cameron decides not to show us what happens, gambling on a dramatic payoff when he reveals the result of this action, but shortchanging us on seeing the pains it took to be accomplished.

Another issue is that Cameron’s action movies have always had an element of suspense to it, of which Avatar has very little.  The action is pretty straightforward, with a couple of cool scenes, but there is no menace, no sense of dread.  There are multiple character deaths here, none of which I really cared about.  There is a confused allegory for the war in Iraq mixed with an environmental consciousness.  I don’t have to really get into the idea of anti-corporate, anti-technological sentiment when everything about the making of the movie is pro-corporate, pro-technology, and you’ll read that in many other reviews, glowing and otherwise.  Also, Cameron has never been lauded for his writing skills, but the script seems more noticeable in this movie than any of his others, which means he was able to deflect attention away from the dialogue in his other movies.  Not so here.

The movie looks as cool as anything you have ever seen.  The question is, once you’ve seen it, what will keep you enthralled and invested in the characters?  I say there’s not much.  Most of these people are just symbols; the grizzled colonel, the greedy corporate guy, the tough chick who “didn’t sign up for this shit” (Michelle Rodriguez).  I’ve seen the movie twice now in two of the three formats (IMAX is the one I haven’t seen), and I can’t quite see this movie growing on me like The Terminator or Aliens.  Those movies set a mood, something tangible that we can relate to even while some heavy sci-fi impossibilities hit the screen.  They had suspense and darkness and a plot that motored the action.  Avatar doesn’t.

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