Hotter than reality by far? Well, maybe…I’d say more just (a) totally super serial. A decade in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar, for all intent and purposes, basically turned out quite a bit like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. (I was going to say The Phantom Menace, but I think that’s too harsh.) The movie looks absolutely amazing, and…uh…well…did I mention it looks amazing? So if you’re the type of person who can enjoy a ravishing visual feast on its own terms (and I am sometimes — for example, Speed Racer), then I think you’ll probably flat-out love it, and it’s definitely worth seeing in 3D.
But — and there’s a big but — if you’re someone who can’t get by on a feast of technological wonders alone, and for whatever reason I was that guy last night, then Avatar leaves something to be desired. It’s got cat class and it’s got cat style alright, but for all the visual inventiveness on display — bioluminescent forests, hammerhead rhinos, insectile gunships, and the like — Avatar is also a gorgeous three-hour cliche: The action may take place in three dimensions, but the story, alas, barely has one. As a result, Avatar has a bit of that too-much-frittering-around-the-edges feel of the Star Wars prequels. Yes, the six-legged equines and mercenary sidearms seem remarkably well-designed…but good god man, what about the plot?
About that plot, we’ve seen or heard the basic contours of this story a dozen times over, albeit not with blue felinoids: Warrior goes undercover, falls in love, goes native, and turns on his former and erstwhile masters. It’s Lawrence of Arabia, Little Big Man, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, and Dune, just to name a few variations of this theme. (If you’re a WoW player with avatars of your own, Avatar also goes like this: Guy levels a night-elf and/or draenei in Zangarmarsh, really loves his flying mount, and eventually gets caught up in a lot of guild drama.) Now, I don’t begrudge Cameron for retelling a hoary tale here. This story may be as old as the hills, sure, but, it’s all in the execution. But execution-wise, Avatar doesn’t really cut it in a lot of ways. It’s just too broad and ham-handed most of the time. And there are too many absurd plot points (say, all the formerly Na’vi-eating animals turning into the eagles at Mordor in the third act) and reversals (say, all the Na’vi being so awed into submission — after being screwed over and run out of their World Tree — by an apparently easy-to-tame dragon. The Kwisatz haderach never had it so good.)
To be honest, I’m not really sure what happened here. I mean, the dialogue in Titanic is admittedly clunky as all hell, but damned if I don’t feel right there on the boat every time the iceberg comes around. Terminator 2 also has a lot of “hasta la vista, baby” and “why do you cry?” drek to wade through, but it definitely works in the end. And I’d say Cameron’s three best films — Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss — all benefit from quality writing, memorably punchy dialogue, and well-rounded, believable characters. But somewhere here, it feels like Cameron got lost in his sea of pixels. The result is visually impressive to be sure. But — at least for me — it’s not particularly engaging on any emotional level.
I’ll give Avatar this — the problem is not the CGI-rendering. As a feat of technology, the Na’vi characters here are, like almost all of Pandora, the next order of Gollum. They all look and act as photo-realistic as ten-foot-tall blue cats ever could. (In fact, they seem more lifelike than Sam Worthington, who turns in a mostly forgettable performance here — As his respective military and scientific handlers, Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver, both looking extraordinarily well-preserved, resonate more.) And when the Na’vi are traipsing about their bioluminescent world like it’s an alien nature docutmentary, Avatar is as good as it gets.
But, while they may be more Siamese than Sioux, the Na’vi are also somewhat condescending and even vaguely embarrassing noble savage stereotypes, particularly Zoe Saldana’s character and her intended betrothed. (I didn’t catch the name, and thought of him basically as cat-Billy-Zane.) This would probably rankle more if most everyone else in the story wasn’t a caricature too. Giovanni Ribisi (overplaying it) is the weaselly corporate lackey. (He’s Burke, a.k.a. Paul Reiser from Aliens.) Michelle Rodriguez (in her wheelhouse) is the tough-as-nails military gal with the heart of gold. (She’s Vasquez, a.k.a. Jenette Goldstein, also from Aliens.) And so on — Not one character does or says anything surprising over the course of three hours, and so Avatar, for all its visual grandeur, just plays out like an eye-catching, extraordinarily expensive, and maddeningly familiar Saturday morning (super-)serial.
Not to lose the Hometree in the forest, Avatar looks, really, really good. Beautiful, even. And, amid the shock-and-awe references and Zen-tastic Earth mother philosophy, there are glimpses of some interesting ideas interspersed throughout the cornball stuff. I get the feeling there might be some meta-commentary going on here about actors and “avatar” technology — Sam Worthington the actor is stepping into a ten-foot-tall cat suit just as much as his character Jake Sully is — although I could be over-thinking it. And a late moment involving Sully (in human form) and one of the Na’vi — the Pieta scene in the trailer (which, by the way, Stephen Lang fell conveniently close to… and what happened to the nerdy sidekick guy who should’ve been in there at the time?) — plays out like the Urtext image of much of Cameron’s output over the years. (From Ellen Ripley to Sarah Connor, Cameron does love his warrior-goddess mothering types.)
Nonetheless, while probably worth catching for the 3-D ride experience, Avatar fell well below my expectations of the King of the World’s vaunted return. More than most — some might say all — of his contemporaries, James Cameron has always had the knack for giving his technological marvels a human pulse: The Terminator, The Abyss, and Titanic are first and foremost love stories; In the midst of all the kick-ass, T2 and Aliens are also movies about (adopted) parents and children. But that gift for keeping humanity front and center in his sci-fi failed him this time — For all its visual splendor, Avatar sadly falls into an uncanny valley of the heart. Simply put, it just feels a bit hollow.