Absent from the big screen for over a decade now, Oscar-winning director James Cameron returns armed with a reported half-billion dollars, a story he’s been desperate to tell for 15 years, and the very latest in cutting-edge visual technology. The result is “Avatar,” a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC clichés that not a single plot turn – small or large – surprises. I call it the “liberal tell,” where the early and obvious politics of the film gives away the entire story before the second act begins, and “Avatar” might be the sorriest example of this yet. For all the time and money and technology that went into its making, the thing that matters most – character and story – are strictly Afterschool Special.
What a crushing disappointment from one of our most original and imaginative filmmakers.
Set in 2154, “Avatar” is a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War. Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine Corporal sent to the planet Pandora after the untimely death of his brother. In a plot-thread built up to promise much that never pays off, Sully has none of the training his brother benefitted by: years of schooling in the Avatar Program to prepare him to infiltrate the indigenous species of Pandora called the Na’vi, who are the only things between Earth’s RDA (Resources Development Administration) and a precious energy resource “ironically” called Unobtainium.
Because the air on Pandora is toxic to humans, the RDA developed the Avatar Program to create clone-like avatars from both Na’vi and human DNA (which is why they need the untrained Sully) that allow for a human to transfer their consciousness into the 10-foot native blue beings and safely explore the planet. The scientists want to use the program to study Pandora, the military wants to conquer it, and the RDA wants to strip mine it. At first Sully’s unconcerned with these dueling tensions and agendas. Once a marine always a marine, and when his commanding officer, the beefed up genocide-happy Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), asks him to infiltrate the Na’vi and do recon for a probable attack, Jake is more than ready. Hoo-rah.
But before you can say I’ve seen this movie a thousand times before, Jake enters his Na’vi avatar and in a tired action scene straight out of the “Jurassic Park” trilogy, gets lost in the dangerous Pandoran forest only to be rescued by something else he’d like to enter, the beautiful (if you go for ten-foot tall gaudy blue females) Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) – a walking cliché of the tough, earthy, compassionate, oh-so wise love interest who can somehow speak English … but in that halting way that’s so gosh darned endearing.
And so begins the real Cliché-A-Thon…
Does Neytiri just happen to be the Chief’s daughter? Check! At first, does the tribe not trust Sully and want to kill him on the spot before Neytiri intervenes with wise explanations as to why it’s their tribal custom to take in strangers as one of their own? Chuh-eck! Is Sully then immersed in the native culture and put through a series of tests to prove his worthiness beginning with the sort of clumsiness that brings hoots of derisive laughter from the male warriors but endears him to Neytiri? Double check! Does Sully eventually become one of their strongest warriors and on the day he’s to be initiated as a full member of the tribe–GOD this movie’s tedious.
There’s nothing wrong with a simple, boilerplate plot. They’re boilerplate for a reason. But within that well worn template complicated characters involved in complicated and surprising relationships are an absolute necessity, and this is where “Avatar” fails miserably.
Within 15 minutes, the “liberal tell” spoils every story beat of Sully’s character arc. He’s as dull a protagonist as you’ll ever see. Sigourney Weaver plays a gruff-talking, cigarette smoking scientist with … wait for it, wait for it … a heart of gold. Giovanni Ribisi’s sweaty weasel of a corporate executive never moves beyond that and Col. Quaritch is all ‘roid rage, no humanity and his Big Speech about the necessity of “a pre-emptive attack to fight terror with terror” was as surprising as Cameron’s use of a military “shock and awe” campaign to level the Na’Vi’s precious “Home Tree” as a tacky metaphor for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Oh yeah, he went there…
In supporting roles, Michelle Rodriguez and Joel Moore bring a whole lot more to their underwritten roles than the film deserves — you’d like to spend more time with them — but it’s always back to the film’s dullest characters: the one-dimensional Na’vi. You would think that with 15 years and a half-billion dollars, Cameron could come up an alien species that doesn’t drip with every Indian and African sacred-cow cliché imaginable. These are creatures who worship the Great Mother Eywa, have a sacred relationship with the earth, shoot bow and arrows, ride horse-like animals, whoop it up in battle, and talk like this: “It has only happened five times since the time of the first songs of our ancestors.”
The Na’vi also apologize to animals after killing but before butchering them. So I guess that’s okay. Maybe if Quaritch had gotten on the loudspeaker and spoken a little mumbo-jumbo before dropping a daisy cutter on Home Tree all would be forgiven.
On top of that, the Na’vi are an awfully stupid species. After years of dealing with the “Sky People,” for some reason they still haven’t figured out that arrows are useless against giant military aircraft. And is it okay to mention how hard it is to keep track of who’s who, because the Na’vi, uhm … all look alike? Twice I was sure Sully’s avatar had been killed. Twice I was disappointed.
Cameron’s brainchild tribe is boringly perfect and insufferably noble … I wanted to wipe them out.
Visually “Avatar” doesn’t break any new ground. It looks like a big-budget animated film with a garish color palette right off a hippie’s tie dye shirt. Never for a moment did I believe the Na’vi or the world of Pandora was something organic or real. The fairly pointless use of 3-D certainly doesn’t help, but Steven Spielberg’s sixteen year-old dinosaurs are light years ahead of “Avatar” in the reality department.
The one thing Cameron has always done well is to create busy, energetic, brilliantly choreographed action scenes that allow the audience to follow what’s going on. That’s not a small thing because it’s becoming a lost art in Hollywood as more and more filmmakers lazily trade coherence for the artless shaky-cam and hyper edits. And while none of Cameron’s big battle set-pieces is ever able to overcome the “liberal tells” pre-ordained outcome and create a sense of suspense or peril, at least you don’t get lost in the precious wonder of it all.
Think of “Avatar” as “Death Wish 5” for leftists. A simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America), you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all and still get off watching them get what they got coming.
And if Cameron is able to make a profit spending a half-billion dollars on a little liberal bloodlust, more power to him.
UPDATE: More on “Avatar” vs. “Jurassic Park” here.