With Avatar, James Cameron deserves enormous credit for wrestling his unique cinematic vision to life. Though it’s cobbled together from odds and ends we’ve seen elsewhere, it isn’t a sequel or a remake and it’s not based on a novel, a comic book, a TV show or a toy. Avatar is not (yet) a brand. It is a from-the-ground-up piece of popular filmmaking. What’s more, there are few filmmakers besides Cameron powerful enough to pull off something new on this scale and fewer still with the energy and creative drive left to do so. At a time when studios seem to be recoiling from originality, Avatar is a miracle that should be celebrated. It’s all the more disappointing then that the old-fashioned sense of showmanship Cameron returns to the big screen doesn’t quite live up to the carnival barker’s hype. In the end, the pure spectacle he achieves isn’t enough to surmount his old enemies of story and dialogue. Avatar finally is merely a good movie when it could’ve been a great one.
But, forget about the screenplay for a minute. The main reasons most people will line up for Avatar are the action and the special effects. The former never approaches the spare, gritty, white-knuckle intensity of Cameron’s Aliens, but Avatar still delivers plenty of action thrills and the special effects by themselves are almost worth the price of admission. While Cameron and his effects team have not created credible photoreality, they have created lifelike animation with an expressiveness and a vitality surpassing anything we’ve ever seen. It takes a few scenes to adjust to the Na’vi, the giant blue humanoid creatures central to the story, but once they win you over, they’re able to convey an emotional depth unseen in animation before. This isn’t just voice acting. These are true performances by human actors and they are worthy of being judged as such.
Though the technology is amazing, it’s too bad that the vision behind it is so mundane. Cameron has created an entire new world pixel by pixel with an insane attention to detail and the freedom to make it any way he wanted, but the best he could come up with is flora and fauna that feel patched together from earthbound counterparts. The jungle is intricate and beautiful and the inventive monsters are appropriately vicious and exciting when they’re on the attack, but they’re also lacking in personality. Remember the undiluted visceral thrill the first time T-Rex opened its jaws and roared in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? There’s nothing like that here. There is nothing that taps into childhood fears and makes you feel like a little kid again.
As for pure creativity, there are only a couple of moments in Avatar that even approach the jaw-dropping displays of pure unfettered imagination routinely channeled by Guillermo del Toro. For example, there is nothing in Cameron’s film that even comes close to the sheer chilling wonder of the Tree Elemental scene from Hellboy II, an imperfect film itself but one of boundless and joyful imagination. Cameron’s effects (and budget) may surpass del Toro’s, but they’re deficient in their depth of soul. As a side note, the thought of del Toro with the all the powers of Weta Digital (the company behind Avatar’s amazing CGI) at his command suddenly gives me goosebumps and really ignites my enthusiasm for his upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.
As for the 3D technology, it’s a neat gimmick, but it is still a gimmick. Yes, the immersiveness of Avatar is a step forward for cinema as a visual experience, but for every 3D advance, Cameron’s 2D script is sadly a step backward for storytelling. Larded with his trademark clunky dialogue, Avatar sags whenever genuine drama is called for. The fantasy milieu renders it less jarring than it was in Titanic, but it’s still a problem especially because Avatar so desperately wants to be more than mere spectacle. The story itself involving a planet full of noble savages and a human race eager to exploit its resources is recycled from every colonial vs. native plotline, but it would’ve been sturdy enough to get by if only the visual imagination had lived up to its promise. Instead, after 2 hours and 40 minutes, the balance of silly to amazing tips ever so slightly in favor of silly.
For all the fuss about the technology and the effects, it’s a couple of the human actors who really threaten to bring Avatar to life. Even playing borderline cartoons, Giovanni Ribisi and Sigourney Weaver inject enough energy and nuance into their stock characters to make them genuinely entertaining. Ribisi plays the heartless corporate asshole (a relative of Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens) while Weaver plays a rough and tumble scientist in the Ripley mold. Sam Worthington is adequate if unspectacular as Jake, the human hero who goes native when he falls for a Na’vi female. Zoe Saldana’s work as Neytiri, Jake’s love interest, is a little bit broad but it kind of has to be in order to sell the performance-capture technology. Stephen Lang meanwhile gets to bite off the most macho chunks of Cameron’s leaden dialogue. It’s a juicy part, but Lang overplays it. The cheesy military banter that played so well in Aliens here just seems corny.
Ultimately, there’s enough to like about Avatar to make it recommendable. Most will probably be satisfied and justifiably amazed by the result, though it’s difficult to imagine the film taking on iconic status once the technology behind it becomes commonplace and is ultimately surpassed. It lacks the soul of other touchstones of sci-fi filmmaking that are still talked about today like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars or even Cameron’s own Terminator and Aliens.
In a climate where studios treat originality like some kind of plague, it took a blunt instrument just to get the film made and Cameron should be commended for doing so. Unfortunately, the film itself cries out for a finer, more nimble touch. With Avatar, Cameron has shaped a massive block of marble into a recognizable form, but he lacks the finesse to transform it into an enduring work of art.
Avatar. USA 2009. Written and directed by James Cameron. Cinematography by Mauro Fiore. Music score by James Horner. Edited by James Cameron, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi. 2 hours 40 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Avatar, CCH Pounder, Giovanni Ribisi, James Cameron, James Horner, Joel David Moore, John Refoua, Mauro Fiore, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Stephen Rivkin, Wes Studi, Zoe Saldana