Avatar is a great technology in search of a halfway decent movie. Just to get the slight praise out of the way, the computer animation used to create Pandora is more than beautiful, it usually looks fairly natural. The surfaces are textured enough to appear sort of flawed, as if they are skin/bark/rock rather than a plastic shell. During many of the ‘exploration’ sequences, one feels content to simply watch and ignore any story in progress, awaiting David Attenborough’s input into how there is one animal here that doesn’t glow in the dark. There was a supreme imagination at work in this aspect of the film, though there was little thought put into why the flora and fauna ended up the way they did due to, for example, the low gravity, atmospheric makeup and density, and that Pandora appears to be a moon in orbit around a very nearby gas giant. Irrelevant to the story, I suppose, but the story itself held a dim candle to the visual design, the seamless motion capture of the actors, and the unique appearances of the species. That out of the way, Cameron could have spent another decade actually writing a decent script to apply to this. Avatar is welded together from spare parts of other, better films. The pacing is spastic, with scant attention paid to crucial plot points while others are used as filler in an already overlong film. It is predictable, awkwardly written, centered upon a dull cipher of a protagonist who you wish would just get killed off already so the camera could continue to explore the jungles. This is not a good way to start an epic.
I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing the plot since you know it quite well; Jake is there to infiltrate the natives in a project designed to rape the frontier of a dangerous planet, and he ends up going native, and leads the charge against the invaders. Giant machines mine the surface of the planet for a Whatever Metal that is worth the long trip to Pandora, itself an investment. A corporate hack who could not be a dumber mustache-twirling villain explains the mission to people who have been there for some time already while a scarred military dickbeard drawls about how the only way to deal with the savages are to kill them. So you know the humans are the bad guys, and this point is hammered home so often that you want to grab Cameron by the lapels and scream YES I GET IT YOU TWAT. And the story grows progressively oafish as the laborious colonialism parallel is laid out. The humans are there for the metal (Unobtainium? Really?), and they try to win the Hearts and Minds by Building Schools and Giving Them Roads while killing them indiscriminately and tearing up large sections of their home. The humans fight with a shock and awe campaign while justifying their occupation of an alien land with token gestures and are oblivious to the religion of the natives. And of course the armed forces are used for corporate interests. The American involvement in Vietnam and Iraq are not undercurrents – they are plastered all across the screenplay repeatedly, just in case you are missing some chromosomes and don’t get the message. The natives in question, the absurd-looking Na’vi, are nine foot tall blue cats, which speaks volumes about Cameron’s fetish profile. They are not only Native American stand-ins, they speak Sioux with Papyrus-font subtitles (the ones businesses use when advertising something vaguely ethnic), use bows, and commune with nature and the ancestors. And this theme is used to bludgeon the audience in preparation for the conflict, so you arrive with some pathos borrowed from historical genocide. I will belabor this point, because Cameron does well beyond the point of annoyance. Giant machines return to Fort Apache with arrows stuck in the tires, the Na’vi conduct ceremonies (reenacting a scene from Baraka) communing directly with the earth, and warriors must go through rites of passage to ‘become a man’. And do these guys ever commune with nature.
Not one to accept metaphor as inapplicable in a literal sense, Cameron actually has the Blue Sioux directly connecting with nature through touch and squid-digital interface cables, so there is a literal oneness with the natural world. The ancestors actually can talk to whomever as long as they plug into the right tree. Things are ‘positive spirits’, and this is a literal statement; a scientist refers to the biological connections and the entire planet as a living entity. The new agey bullshit piles up thick and fast in a world where positive thinking is a quantifiable force capable of spurring the world to action. There is value in seeing yourself as a part of a complicated whole in the vast ecosystem in that this perspective pushes you to responsible action; i.e. not shitting where you eat. But this is just silly, and anyone who hasn’t blown an inordinate amount of time and $20 on The Secret will roll their eyes out their sockets, up the aisles, and into a better movie. Though I admire the work of Wangari Maathai, the creator of Titanic will not lecture me about the value of humming in the forest and talking to trees. There are other themes shoehorned into an overstuffed script about civilians versus military, science for understanding versus business interests, and the evils of capitalism, but all are given cursory high-school level rumination before moving onto the next setpiece. As a result, much of the story feels like a forced afterthought. For example, Jake first encounters the Na’vi tribe and they all want to kill him for being an avatar spy. And just as quickly, they decide to adopt him and train him to be a trusted warrior for some vague reason involving tree seeds and a sign from the ancestors. The most common theme, as a result, is “Let’s just keep moving along”.
The worst aspect of Avatar is its Frankenstein’s abortion of a storyline borrowed from Dances With Wolves, so every single plot move was telegraphed in 1990. Jake is an outsider, then an insider, mates with a native, learns their ways, and then at a way way way fucking late date decides to inform them that they will likely be wiped out in a minute. There is a false antagonist in the tribe who becomes a friend, a sign that the interloper will help them, and retaliation. This leaves every scene blissfully free of tension, and the blank spaces are simply filled with the requisite motions. If an object or procedure is mentioned, you can guarantee it will come in handy for plot purposes within the hour, in just the way you imagined it. Cameron even borrows his metal suit and the drop ship from Aliens, the love story from the Pocahontas legend, the remote control gimmick from The Matrix, the imposing stature of the Na’vi from Jar Jar Binks, and the plant designs are cobbled from basic tropical leaves and the forest of The Dark Crystal. Avatar comes off as oddly incidental, a $250 million side effect, and the last great hangover of what writer Chris Bucholz is calling the Dorkade. As a popcorn film, it is bloated and headache-inducing; as entertainment it is too self-serious to endure; as a drama it is too goofy to take seriously. Three fucking hours to arrive at a predetermined destination is a sign the editor was murdered early in the process, and nearly justifies the use of a bladder catheter by the audience.
I suspect that as The Phantom Menace introduced the use of digital characters that was better utilized in The Lord of the Rings, the technology of Avatar will eventually be used for something infinitely more satisfying when someone applies novel ideas to it. Not every breakthrough is a work of perfection, or even inspiration; a montage of early airplane designs hilariously crashing springs to mind. Have patience, however – a new decade will bring new ideas, and most likely a new film that explores delicate themes of the organized chaos of nature. Or the recycled corpse of Avatar will itself be recycled like a meta theme regarding how Hollywood tends to dine heartily on its own stool.