James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar is an ambitious, beautifully rendered, and visually stunning film. It is also a storytelling mess without a single character to care about and with all of the logic of a fourth grade English student trying write a really cool science fiction story. It's simply impossible to begrudge people who fall for the epic visual scale of the story in the same way that early filmgoers fell for flickering images in a darkened theater. But when you step back and look at the film critically, examine what works and its failings on a basic storytelling level, it disappoints. The story is as hollow as the tree that houses most of the lead characters. All films, even visual spectacles like Avatar, must start with story. It's easy to fall for technical achievements in the moment but the films that survive, even technically accomplished ones, also have a foundation of human emotion, character arcs, and dialogue that doesn't hit every single beat directly on the nose. Sure, George Lucas was never a master of the written word, but, at least in the original trilogy, he knew that the humanity of his characters was as essential as the worlds they travelled to. With Avatar, James Cameron has built a spectacularly designed visual extravaganza, but he's lost the human element.
Avatar takes place during three months in 2154 on the planet of Pandora, the site of a war between invading Americans and an indigenous population known as the Na'vi. For relatively unclear reasons other than a blatant parallel in the war for oil in the Middle East, our side wants to raid the Na'vi's homeland for a mineral called Unobtainium, a reference to materials that are impossible to get but also a word that is ridiculously on-the-nose for a sci-fi movie. To get closer to the Na'vi and gain their trust in order to get them to move from the tree-home that stands over the largest deposit of Unobtainium, an avatar program has been developed that allows humans to remotely control Na'vi bodies that have been created from their own DNA.
Enter a hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a young man whose brother was part of the program before being shot and killed. Jake is a former marine who has lost the use of his legs but whose DNA is close enough to his twin brother’s that he can power his avatar and becomes a main conduit between the sides of this planetary turf war. Jake is torn between the scientists (including Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore) who want to study and learn from the Na'vi and the military men (led by a Colonel played by Stephen Lang) who merely want intel to exploit in the war. Of course, Jake falls in love during his time in country with a princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, quickly becoming a sci-fi goddess with roles in the two biggest films in the genre in one year – she was Uhura in Star Trek). Jake ends up in the heart of the Na'vi clan, crossing paths with warrior Tsu'Tey (Laz Alonso) and the clan’s leader Eytucan (Wes Studi). Of course, it's all setup for a massive battle sequence involving all of the aforementioned characters.
From minute one, Avatar is a visual jaw-dropper. When Jake first emerges from hypersleep in 3D, the depth of the visual field forced a "wow" from this critic's cynical lips. And the scenes of visual space do work, as in when the scientists travel to the flying mountains or when Na'vi Jake climbs to the top of the world to tame what basically looks like an alien dragon. The final scenes, largely free of the dialogue that is the film’s biggest weakness, have an epic battle scope to rival the best of their kind. Avatar is an explosive experience that will almost certainly dazzle with its technical brilliance and anyone who falls in love with the film is doing so largely for that reason. Cameron is working on a gigantic canvas and he proves that he has the technical skills and ability to render his vision in a way that most of the people who have been inspired by him do not.
It's also to the film's credit that it exists at all. The fact is that James Cameron can do whatever he wants. He could have gone back and made another Terminator film or a Titanic rip-off, but he stuck his neck out by producing something completely original and unique. Ambition, especially among the elite and powerful, should be recognized.
Avatar may be a technical masterpiece, but there are deep storytelling flaws that keep the film from working as the complete experience promised by the visual expertise. The dialogue in Avatar is abysmal. A character uses the phrase "shock and awe," just in case you missed the obvious Iraq War parallel, and one even says "I didn't sign up for this sh*t." Most of it makes “Game over, man” feel subtle. Cameron is a masterful visual composer with very little ability in writing believable, interesting characters. Of course, it's always been a problem in his work but past films had a human element to grab on to that's simply missing here. The romance between Jake and Neytiri is underdeveloped and every single other character is a two-dimensional archetype in a three-dimensional film. The marines, the other Na’vi, the scientists – all merely plot devices.
Cameron cared so much about the universe he was creating that he forgot to populate it with something human and relatable to hold on to. The creatures of Pandora have more life than the people or the Na'vi. And the story has no arc and no beat that isn't telegraphed from miles away and then underlined in blue ink. If you don't know everything that's going to happen in Avatar from the first act, you really don't know movies. I understand the desire to praise an oft-told story covered in a new way, but imagine if Cameron had used all of this time and effort and all of his technical expertise to truly tell something new, not just show off his mastery of pretty pictures and action sequences. Avatar is like a beautiful, stunning runway model that looks amazing but doesn't have much of a personality.
And that's what makes Avatar disappointing. Yes, one can argue that Cameron has delivered on his game-changing promise to create something that you've never seen before. They shouldn't even nominate anything else for Best Visual Effects at this year's Oscars. It's that notable from a technical level and I totally understand why people will fall for the film as a jaw-dropping visual experience. But those same people probably won't be able to remember a single line, won't be able to flashback to a single emotional beat that moved them, and won't take anything away from a story that's been told before. Avatar is an amazingly pretty picture. Don't movies need to be more than just pretty pictures?
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)