More than a month after the film’s release, what else is there truly left to say about James Cameron’s game-changing, 3D, high-tech, science fiction extravaganza, Avatar? It is everything that other reviewers say it is, gorgeous, lush, fluid, inventive, vibrant, and yet vacuous, unoriginal, bloated, stilted, and pulseless. It’s the clash between cool technology and soulful storytelling personified, simultaneously beautiful to look at and hollow to its core.
It is also one of the most cinematic experiences one can have in a theater; therefore any negative criticism of the film, while worth heeding, should be set aside. Avatar is a film meant to be seen in a movie theater, without a doubt; waiting for it to hit DVD inevitably will only lead to a totally underwhelming visual journey, which inevitably robs Avatar of its greatest strengths. (And ultimately this characteristic raises interesting questions about 3D technology and how well films like Avatar can truly translate to the modern home theater experience, but that’s another topic for another time.)
In Avatar, the planet Pandora has been discovered by interloping humans, and mining corporation RDA has set up camp in the hopes of harvesting the planet’s valuable natural resource, unobtanium. RDA also employs marines for security; combined, their presence causes no end of consternation to the native humanoid race of Pandora, the Na’vi, ten-foot tall blue humanoids who live in harmony with nature and worship a Gaea-like figure known as Eywa.
In the midst of corporate greed and armed aggression, military scientists have genetically grown their own Na’vi bodies, which can be controlled remotely via mental link by trained operators who share DNA with their specific avatar. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine: His brother, a scientist and an avatar operator, has died, and Jake is being brought in as a replacement. Jake’s motivation for accepting the assignment is obvious. Seeing him awaken in his alien body is one of the film’s more moving moments; he stumbles out of the lab and onto Pandora’s surface, where he takes the time to feel dirt squeezing between his toes for the first time in years. (In a movie defined by bravura FX sequences, I savor little details like this.)
As he grows more accustomed to his new body, he’s sent out with fellow operators Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm (Joel David Moore), tasked with maintaining diplomacy and peaceful relations with the Na’vi. Inevitably, Jake finds himself separated from the other avatars, and at the brink of being overwhelmed by Pandora’s version of a hyena pack, he is saved by Neytivi (Zoe Seldana), a Na’vi huntress. She takes him to her clan, where he is appraised by her mother, the shaman of her people, and Jake’s journey from marine to native begins.
Avatar mines familiar territory in terms of plot and narrative, following in the footsteps of films like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai as Jake becomes enamored with the lifestyle and culture of the Na’vi, rising in their ranks and gaining acceptance amongst them, becoming recognized as one of their own. Inevitably he risks his life to save them from utter destruction at the hands of the RDA and the marines. Audiences have seen this particular trope before. Arguably the reason that such plot elements are so shamelessly recycled is because they are proven, and because they work, and maybe that’s not unfair. It does make an apology, however, for Cameron’s apparent apathy for Avatar‘s story, which he develops only enough to keep the film from collapsing on itself. If Avatar has only one weakness, it is that Cameron directs his picture in such a fashion as to get the story from one plot point to the next, doing the bare minimum required in each scene to move things forward. When supporting characters die, their loss is barely felt, and moments that should resonate with us are barely given time to breathe. Jake initially agrees to provide intel on the Na’vi to the vicious leader of the marine forces, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), before he “goes native”. He confesses this to Neytiri and her tribe, and the furious reaction to his duplicity is rushed and almost muted, as though Cameron sees such scenes as necessary dramatic notes that have to be included in order to get his movie to the point at which he can stage full-scale battle sequences. Cameron’s treatment of Avatar‘s story ends up preventing a firm foothold in the roiling drama on Pandora’s surface from being successfully established.
For another film, this error would render the entire picture inert. Avatar, however, has an ace up its sleeve that ends up saving the whole thing: It’s a feast for all the senses with which we experience movies. As I state in the beginning of the review, Avatar may be the most purely cinematic event of the year solely due to the strength of its visuals. Set aside arguments about whether or not it is truly “photo-real”– this is a shamelessly beautiful and thrilling movie for any theater-goer, a richly realized world that feels completely real. Cameron’s faults as a storyteller are significant, but he is undoubtedly a master technician behind the camera. Not even halfway through the film it becomes easy to believe that a completely make-believe world like Pandora could actually exist somewhere out in the cosmos. While Cameron keeps his audience an arm’s length away from the events unfolding in Avatar, his painstaking attention to detail draws us into the world before we even realize it.
This is, of course, the real conflict of the film. The world is totally engrossing, from flaura and fauna to the culture of the Na’vi. At the same time we don’t have a lot of stake in the escalating tensions present between the native race and the human invaders. This distinction prevents Avatar from reaching an elevated level of complete filmmaking, but the sheer technical artistry on display resolutely distinguishes it as a movie you simply can’t miss. Avatar is an empty picture, but one where the experience is, in the end, the real reward.