Despite some top shelf effects, James Cameron's Avatar is shockingly underwhelming. Yes, the effects are brilliant, but film cannot live by effects alone. So the movie surrounding the effects? Overlong, pedestrian and forgettable.
Avatar is set in 2154 on the far-off moon of Pandora, where the plants glow like a blacklight painting, mountains float in midair and a race of giant blue Smurf-cat natives, the Na'vi, live indigenously on the land. The humans are on Pandora to mine a valuable mineral called unobtanium, but the Na’vi live on the largest deposit of said silly-named mineral and show no signs of moving.
In order to move about Pandora, human scientists have genetically engineered human-Na'vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine who arrives on Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother as an avatar operator. Using his avatar, Jake inadvertently infiltrates the Na'vi clan via an oddly sexy Smurf-cat, Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who, at the behest of her mother, teaches Jake the ways of the Na'vi. This, of course, makes Jake an undercover agent for the marines, and, of course, of course, he starts to become conflicted as to where his loyalties lie: to the marines who want information, or to the Na'vi and Neytiri.
Now, let's talk about the effects first. Like I said, they're top shelf. Yes, they're game-changing, jaw-dropping, astounding, all that. The giant Smurf-cats look photo-real. And the hovering mountains and vistas are breathtaking. And the CGI creatures look believable: their skin glistens with sweat and they don't look backlit like most CGI creations. If you must see it, absolutely see it in IMAX 3D, since there's no reason to watch this on a television set.
Okay, enough of the effects. Let's now talk about, y'know, the film itself.
What bothers me about Avatar isn't the story. The whole point of big budget blockbuster fare is that the story is supposed to be simple and familiar. What bothers me is the storytelling. If the movie's going to be such a by-the-numbers tale (and this really is just a rehashing of Dances With Wolves mixed with a bit of Ferngully and Pochahontis), it needs some clarity and personal flare, and Avatar has neither.
I didn't find it remotely moving or touching. For such a long movie, the characters and story felt oddly thin and underdeveloped. The entire middle section feels like a 50-minute montage. There isn't a single character in this movie that I cared about. The love story between Jake and Neytiri feels rushed and perfunctory. The politics of the film are also intelligence-insultingly reductive (Corporations BAD! Military force BAD! Nature GOOD!).
It also felt like crucial elements to the story are missing. Why is this unobtanium so important? Sure, we're told it's worth a lot, but why? Plus, what are the rules of the avatar? If the avatar is killed, does the person operating it get killed? We're never really told or shown (well, we kind of are in the tail end of the movie...kind of...I think). And seriously, if we're going to go through the trouble of watching Jake learn the language of the Na'vi, why does he spend 99.9% of his time only speaking English to this race that clearly speaks English just fine?
You may be saying I shouldn't worry about these sorts of things and just go along for the ride. I agree: I shouldn't worry about these sorts of things. But since I am, this is the fault of the filmmaker, not the audience member.
I know, I know. I should be wowed by the effects alone. And yes, let me repeat: the special effects are amazing. But with such films as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong or even the original Star Wars available, shouldn't we expect more from our "rules-changing" spectacle films? Are we just wowed by pretty pictures alone, no matter how sloppy and reductive the film itself is?
At the end of it all, Avatar feels like an impressive demo reel that goes on for far too long.
James "Meh" Comtois