Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 27, 2010)
Almost 12 years to the day after the release of Titanic, James Cameron finally returned to the world of feature films with 2009’s Avatar. And he came back with a bang. Like Titanic, Avatar arrived with an enormous budget and many predictions of doom and failure.
Like Titanic, Avatar made those prognosticators look stupid. The film became an immediate smash and ended up with a stunning box office total of $743 million – and slightly counting, for it still remains on some screens as I write in late April 2010. This means Cameron directed the biggest movie of the 1990s, the biggest movie of the 2000s, and if we don’t adjust for inflation, the two highest grossing flicks of all-time.
Wow. What will he do for an encore, cure cancer while he scores 102 points in an NBA game?
Probably not, but it’ll be interesting to see where Cameron goes from here. If anything, its success sets the bar even higher for the director, as he’ll have to try to top two enormous hits with his next flick. Maybe he should just say “goodnight, folks” and bow out now.
Set in the year 2154, humans invade the planet Pandora to mine a mineral called Unobtanium. Two schools of thought exist. The military wants to simply bomb the Na’vi natives and take the Unobtanium, whereas scientists prefer a gentler method.
As part of that, volunteers learn how to integrate with the Na’vi via “avatars”. These genetically engineered creatures look just like Na’vi but they incorporate characteristics of their human counterparts. The humans enter a tank that allows them to control their Na’vi avatars from a remote location; this means they can blend with Na’vi society and try to find a peaceful way to gain access to the Unobtanium.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) ends up as an unlikely participant. His twin brother was the one trained to do the work, but he died. With a massive financial investment in his brother’s avatar, the authorities recruit Jake because his genetic makeup matches the Na’vi counterpart.
The problem? The other volunteers went through intensive training to understand Na’vi society, while Jake just has to wing it. Before long, he finds himself deeply involved in the Na’vi world, and this makes him the best “human” ambassador, especially when Jake develops a very close connection with Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). We follow Jake’s interactions with her and the others as well as other developments related to the human invasion plan.
When I first saw Avatar, I tried to do it right. Its theatrical run offered three flavors: regular 2D, “standard” 3D, and IMAX 3D. The latter seemed like the best way to take in such a big big big film, so that’s where I went.
And I left the theater distinctly underwhelmed. I can’t say I disliked Avatar, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, either. Granted, a little motion sickness probably affected my pleasure; the combination of 3D and camera movement made me a bit googly at times.
However, this wasn’t a repeat of something like United 93, a film with so much “shakycam” that I barely could peek at its second half. Some motion discomfort occurred during Avatar, but not enough to mar my screening of it.
When I left the theater, I figured that my lack of enthusiasm for Avatar may’ve stemmed from my expectations for it. Actually, I didn’t look forward to the movie with great anticipation; to be honest, the previews I saw didn’t make it appear especially interesting.
However, I put a lot of faith in Cameron. He’s only made one bad film in his career, and that one - Piranha 2 - barely counts since it was his “foot in the door” effort. From Terminator to Titanic, every other Cameron work ranged from pretty good to great.
So even though Avatar itself didn’t create much excitement in me, the Cameron name was enough to ensure that I’d expect Great Things from it. When those feelings didn’t emerge, I was disappointed but not surprised, and I knew that my opinion was a work in progress. Heck, I didn’t think much of Aliens when I first saw it, and that’s been my favorite movie for more than two decades.
Did my second screening of Avatar - completed for this review – elicit a different reaction from me? No, not really. On the positive side, I thought the movie maintained my attention well during the repeat viewing. Whatever negatives I’ll throw at Avatar - and I will do that – I can’t criticize its pacing and flow. Though it runs a potentially draggy 162 minutes, the flick goes by quickly and never feels long. It keeps us with it and involved in the story.
Well, kind of. Perhaps my biggest problem with Avatar stems from my near-total inability to connect with its hero characters. By “hero characters”, I mean the Na’vi, as they’re intended to be the positive role models. Yeah, Jake is the film’s protagonist, but he’s human only in theory. The film depicts his metaphorical – and eventually literal – transition from human to Na’vi form, so we really don’t think of him as a man.
And that’s a concern, as I just can’t buy into the Na’vi, partially – and maybe mainly – because they’re just animated characters. I can easily invest in cartoons when they show up in totally animated films ala Up or whatever other flick you like. I can also get involved in artificial characters in live-action movies such as ET the Extra-Terrestrial. Damn, I still cry every time that stupid puppet dies!
So why don’t I give a hoot about the Na’vi? Some of it comes from the stale story and thin characters – more about those later – but a lot of it stems from the movie’s combination of live-action and CG animation. Again, in an all animated world, I accept the “reality” of the characters, and in a live-action environment populated by existing creations like ET or Yoda, I can believe those participants. Sure, I know ET and Yoda are puppets, but at least they’re objects in a real world that interact with actual people.
Unlike the bits and bytes that are the Na’vi, and that’s a problem – for me, at least. Plenty of others clearly encountered no trouble when they needed to suspend disbelief and invest emotionally in the Na’vi, but I couldn’t do it. Whenever they interacted with humans, I just felt reminded of their unreality.
In technical terms, the Na’vi and avatars looked good and occasionally were quite believable – but not always, and not consistently enough to allow me to suspend disbelief. CG characters just aren’t “there” yet. They’ve made big strides, and Avatar definitely gives them another push closer to approximating reality; there are times the Na’vi do feel real.
But those occasions don’t occur frequently enough to get me to accept them. Their faces look too plastic and their movements are too abrupt – they come close to reality, but they just don’t get there. Again, in an animated movie that doesn’t attempt to be “photo-real”, I’m fine with that, but when a flick wants us to accept cartoons among live-action characters, it’s a problem.
Whether due to that absence of believability or other narrative issues, I never gave a hoot and a half about what happened to the Na’vi. Try as I might, I just couldn’t care about the fates of these big, blue cat people. They’re noble, they’re brave – and they’re utterly boring cartoon critters.
Which comes back to the film’s problems with narrative and characters. Cameron’s script has received tons of criticism, and the weak story is the likely reason Avatar didn’t win Best Picture over the mediocre Hurt Locker. Essentially, Avatar offers a combination of Disney’s Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves. You get your standard Awful White Men along with your usual Noble Indigenous People in Touch with Nature and the protagonist who goes native. We’ve seen it all before, and we’ve seen it in a manner at least as dramatic and emotional.
Had Cameron delivered this stale narrative without the standard helping of one-dimensional characterizations/themes, I would’ve been much happier with Avatar. Unfortunately, like Wolves and Pocahontas, Avatar mostly serves as a commentary on how terrible and evil white men are – and how perfect and wonderful the indigenous folks are. No, I’m not defending the aggressive antagonists in Avatar or those other movies, but I will say I’m really sick of this PC worldview. It paints such a one-sided, flat picture that it gets old very quickly.
None of these criticisms should be viewed as an indication that Avatar is a bad film, for it’s not. As I mentioned, it’s consistently entertaining, and it does provide astonishing production values; Avatar gives CGI a total bump to the next level.
Unfortunately, the movie simply lacks much heart. Perhaps it seems illogical that I loved Titanic and was left cold by Avatar since the characters in the former weren’t much more three-dimensional than these and the story was equally trite. Heck, we even knew how the tale would end!
For whatever reason, though, I totally invested in the characters/emotions of Titanic and never dug into those sides of Avatar. Maybe it’s because the former boasted the advantage of its historical impact, or maybe it’s just because I can better relate to humans than I can big blue cat people. All I know is that Avatar takes us on a pretty ride that has some good adventure along the way, but it lacks the emotional punch to make it truly satisfying.