Groundbreaking, and goddamn boring.
It’s been 12 years since self-proclaimed “king of the world” James Cameron sank the Titanic, setting hearts aflutter for Leonardo DiCaprio, and proving that even the most hardened of cynics will roll over for some genuinely awful writing if we’re also being wowed with the next generation of special effects.
Avatar was breathlessly overhyped even when it was still in production. How does one follow the most massive blockbuster of all time? Cameron cut his teeth as a brilliantly efficient B-movie director—it’s shocking how propulsively that first Terminator picture still plays, and I can’t say enough great things about Aliens—but ever since The Abyss, his films have grown increasingly expensive and self-important. Like his spiritual cousin Robert Zemeckis, the man now seems incapable of telling a story without having to invent entirely new technologies to do so. Both gentlemen once crafted shrewd, economical entertainments—only to disappear up their own CGI assholes.
Four hundred million or so dollars later, Avatar lands with a thud. I guess there’s a part of me that admires the film’s 3-D presentation, performance-capture technique and computer animation—you’re never unaware of how much work went into the film. And if you’re not already impressed, characters keep reminding you that you’re watching something amazing. This is groundbreaking, next-level technology, and I was bored out of my goddamn mind.
Sam Worthington stars as a jarhead space Marine who winds up working for an insidious corporation on the distant moon Pandora. Populated by a nine-foot, blue skinned race called the Na’vi, the planet is home to a priceless mineral called “unobtanium.” Wheelchair-bound Worthington’s mission is to operate an avatar—a lanky giant blue version of himself culled from DNA samples and controlled via virtual reality tanning coffins—attempting to play nice with the natives and make them feel better about us plundering their natural resources.
Like an arrested adolescent’s retelling of Terrence Malick’s The New World, Avatar has Worthington falling in love with the Na’vi chief’s daughter (Zoe Saldana) and becoming indoctrinated into their way of life, which is way more pure and connected to nature than his shallow old, white-guy existence. Even faster than you can make a Dances With Wolves wisecrack, Worthington “goes native” and leads the Na’vi in an uprising against our evil colonists, with old-school bows and arrows defeating high-tech military machines on a scale we haven’t seen since the Ewoks booted the Empire out of Endor.
Avatar feels borrowed and rehashed. It’s a collision of shopworn archetypes lacking a personality of its own. (The movie really needed someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who still doesn’t get enough credit for the bratty charm he brought to Titanic.) Cannibalizing his own work, Cameron has Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez reprising Paul Reiser and Jennete Goldstein’s roles from Aliens, and even recycles Sigourney Weaver’s old mechanical exo-skeleton for the finale. (If this all doesn’t feel familiar enough already, composer James Horner repurposes his scores for Aliens and Titanic complete with the schmaltzy power ballad.)
But the hackneyed story and one-note characters are just a mere pretext for Cameron to explore the world of Pandora, and that’s where I was most disappointed. Avatar is awash in exotic creatures, neon colors and strange landscapes prompting human characters to stare directly into the lens, saying: “Wow, huh?” Honestly. I found it awfully tacky and garish.
Cameron is famously a scuba diving aficionado, and his alternate world has the same iridescent glow of a coral reef on a National Geographic special. The brightly-hued Na’vi are impossible to relate to, lumbering about with yellow cat eyes and disturbingly square noses, flying their pink dragons into battle and becoming one with nature by plugging their braids into animal tails like USB ports. (I’m not making this up.)
Avatar looks like the kind of gaudy, 1970s airbrush painting you’d see on a van owned by your stoner friend who sees too many Rush concerts. This is not, as heralded, “the future of cinema.” Instead it’s more like the old cliche: One step forward, two steps back. n
"Pan" deserves the hook