You wouldn’t have a very hard time convincing me that Avatar was not, in fact, actually written and directed by James Cameron, but rather by an ambitious fan of his previous films. That fan remembers the highlights, but he doesn’t remember what made them highlights in the first place. He remembers some of the sharp dialogue, but hasn’t the writing ability to equal it, so he sticks with cliches from other movies he’s seen. He knows the basic pieces and characters of your typical action movie, but he doesn’t want to bother with having to explain how they all fit together; better to just throw everything you can think of onto the screen and assume the audience will kind of get what you were going for, since they’ve seen it so many times before.
That old piece of Ebert wisdom to which I often refer applies to Avatar as much as any other movie I can think of: it knows the music, but not the words. I have a pretty hard time believing that this was Cameron’s Chinese Democracy; it doesn’t seem at all like a story he felt compelled to tell, spending over a decade slaving over its details in order to bring his vision to life. Rather, it feels like a showcase for a couple of technological advancements he wanted to force into happening, and just as was the case when George Lucas tried such a feat, the result is a movie that feels half-assed in its conception, with special effects being the main—and only—draw. It seems only right that I discuss the visuals before even bothering with a story synopsis, as it’s clear that’s how Cameron approached the film himself.
Due to some scheduling confusion, when I saw Avatar on its opening day, it was the non-3D version. And as much as the thought of having to sit through its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time made me wince, I felt like I couldn’t really comment on it unless I’d gotten the full experience, so I went and saw it again two days later. Besides, as someone who’s interested in the technology of film as much as I am the art of it (and who sees the two as being intimately connected), I felt like I had to see what “the future of movies” looked like. I’m glad I did; it earned the movie a full additional star from me. My earlier skepticism was only half founded: while the flim’s plot and story-telling devices are certainly nothing special (and, in fact, they’re considerably below par), the 3D technology employed for its production really is ground-breaking. Whereas previous 3D movies I’ve seen (Coraline, Up, A Christmas Carol—all of which were completely animated) liked to use the effect primarily as a gimmick (although, as CK pointed out, Up was the most measured such use), in Avatar it is an integral part of the film itself. Previous 3D offerings have mostly relied on creating distinct planes of depth, with the occasional object sticking out of the screen into the audience (the “woah, look out, it’s coming at you!” effect), and I’ve largely agreed with Ebert’s assessment of such technology. The 3D effect of Avatar, however, is almost completely continuous; it’s not used so much to selectively make things pop out of the screen, but rather to add depth to everything you’re seeing, making it feel like an actual world. It really does immerse the viewer in the movie, and it’s for that reason that my second viewing was much more enjoyable than my first. Seeing this movie in 2D, you’re aware of the fact that several shots are framed so as to provide maximum perceived depth for the viewer, but since you’re not getting the effect it feels hokey and distracting. In 3D, though, such shots effectively convey the scope of the world in which the film takes place, while adding to the audience’s sympathy with the characters as well.
That’s not to say that it’s flawless. This is a significant landmark in the development of this recent iteration of 3D movies, but it’s not the final product. They still haven’t figured out how to keep things looking right when they’re at the edges of the frame, especially those that you perceive as sticking out of the screen. Motion can also be awkward at times, making things blurry in a way that seems to “pull apart” the stereoscopic images, which is really distracting. This is most pronounced when the camera is panning and objects come into and out of the frame as it does so. (Note: I’m not sure if this only happens with my eyes, or everybody’s, but until the technology is advanced enough that it is effective for every audience member all the time, it still has some ways to go.) Seeing this movie in 3D, nonetheless, is a very impressive experience, and while I don’t know if it’s as “revolutionary” as the advertising would like you to believe, it’s certainly a very significant evolutionary step of this technology.
It’s a good thing, too, because if it weren’t for such technological achievements, Avatar would be a pretty awful movie. The plot is paper-thin and ill-conceived, the characters are bland and clichéd, and the dialogue is so bad it made me cringe on multiple occasions. This is probably James Cameron’s poorest screenplay (even counting Titanic), but as I said, it’s obvious that he wasn’t really concerned with the script in the first place. It takes place about 150 years from now, and humans are trying to mine a material called “unobtanium” (yes, that’s really what they call it) from the planet Pandora. It’s pretty strange how little people have changed in those 150 years; they still smoke cigarettes, for instance, and gun technology hasn’t advance much except that they’ve gotten a little bigger. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who signs on to control an avatar, which is a body of a native Pandoran—a Na’vi—that he operates while in a sort of trance (and when his avatar sleeps, that’s when he wakes up). He’s sent to befriend the Na’vi, in order to convince them to leave their home so that the company he works for can access all of that precious—and ridiculously valuable—unobtanium that’s to be found under the tree in which they live. He keeps a video log, which conveniently serves as the film’s narration. Worthington is respectable for the most part in this role, although he’s asked to act the fool on several occasions, and he sometimes forgets to speak with an American accent (as was also the case in Terminator Salvation).
Dunbar—er, Sully—takes to the Na’vi culture quite well, and gains their trust. He of course falls in love with one of them, the huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who also serves as his (and our) tour guide to Pandora and the Na’vi society. That society is basically a half-hearted amalgamation of Native American stereotypes; the Na’vi are in tune with their planet (which they call “Mother”), spiritual people who are guided by a shaman, nature-warriors who fight with bows and arrows and whoop and ululate, who feel remorse for the lives they take in order to feed themselves, and who share a very literal bond with the animals they ride. The out-of-control Colonel (Stephen Lang) calls them savages and wants only to annihilate them (without much purpose, I might add—the “unobtanium” provides only the thinnest of excuses for the majority of the film’s action). He does his best impression of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, mixed with every other stereotypical, generic military leader. In fact, pretty much every character in Avatar is either a clichéd stereotype, a blatant rip-off of a character from a more original film, or both. The dialogue is equally uninspired, the jokes falling flat and the attempts at earnestness coming across as unintentionally funny. The worst such examples are the multiple instances of Worthington’s avatar character raising his fist triumphantly and shouting the most un-heartfelt “YEAH!” you’ve ever heard. It’s impossible to even attempt to take seriously.
I usually don’t make out-and-out recommendations for movies, preferring instead to describe my personal assessments of them and leaving it to the reader to decide if he or she agrees with them or not. For Avatar, though, it’s pretty straightforward: if you’re interested in the special effects, particularly the 3D cinematography—both as an exhibition of the current state-of-the-art, as well as an indicator of the direction in which the technology is headed—then you owe it to yourself to see it, and to see it on the big screen. The spectacle will be good enough that the film’s other shortcomings—which is pretty much every other aspect—can be overlooked. Don’t bother seeing it in 2D, though, because in that format you’re forced to focus on the storytelling, which leaves a lot to be desired (not to mention you’ll also be distracted by the obviously made-for-3D components). Personally, I’m kind of glad, in retrospect, that I saw both versions; it was a pretty eye-opening experience.