Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald, Sean Anthony Moran, Jason Whyte, Scott Lawrence
Written by: James Cameron
Directed by: James Cameron
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking
Running Time: 162
Date: 12/10/2009

Avatar (2009)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Blue in the Face

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are a lot of science fiction fans eagerly awaiting James Cameron's new feature film -- his first in 12 years, since Titanic -- and ready to jump all over critics who pan it. Some critics have perhaps hedged their bets with rave reviews, hoping to avoid the attacks, but as for me, I can't recommend Avatar to regular, paying audiences; there's just not enough here to make a complete and satisfying movie experience. Samuel Fuller (in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou) described cinema thusly: "in one word, emotion." That is mainly what's missing from Avatar. If you want to go to the movies and see nothing more than new breeds of alien creatures, weapons, plant life and spacecraft, and lots of things blowing up, then you'll probably have a ball, but if you're looking for something more -- like a story or characters, or artistry or personality -- I'd suggest seeking elsewhere.

The plot is a combination of a least a dozen other plots that I guarantee you've seen before, and there was not one minute of this 162-minute film that I did not have figured out in advance. It begins as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine who has lost the use of his legs, arrives on the planet Pandora with a special assignment. There, scientists have developed "avatars," which are basically empty, organic shells designed to look like the planet's inhabitants, the Na'vi, who are tall, svelte, muscular and blue with tails and yellow eyes. A human can project his or her conscious mind into the avatar and "become" an alien. Jake's twin brother had an avatar created for him before his death, and the scientists hope that Jake's DNA matches closely enough that he can take over. Now, the humans are mainly after a very valuable rock that is only to be found underneath the Na'vi's land. As is the case in a thousand other movies, the military wants to attack, but the scientists are looking for a peaceful way to get to know the aliens and perhaps negotiate with them.

While exploring the jungles of Pandora in his avatar, Jake becomes separated and stranded. A female Na'vi with dreadlocks named Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) rescues him and brings him home. Thanks to a sign from the tree of life (or something) the Na'vi decide not to kill him, and to train him as one of their own. Meanwhile, the nasty Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) wants Jake to spy on the creatures and report back to him. But -- of course -- he learns to love the creatures and their ways of living in harmony with nature. Jake also falls for Neytiri, even though she is already betrothed to the tribe's head warrior. Eventually he must decide whether to stick with his new friends or rejoin the cruel humans.

Essentially what we have here is a war movie wrapped up in science fiction costumes, as well as a soapbox movie that preaches against the destruction of nature. The plot and characters are so basic that it would take a long list of movies to illustrate just how far back Cameron has plundered for his supposedly "new" and "groundbreaking" picture. (Just to name a few: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas). There are also elements of the very common "chosen one" plotline here, as seen in things like The Matrix and The Golden Compass. But the two films I was thinking of most were Battle for Terra and 9, both of which were released earlier this year, and both of which received tepid to bad reviews from critics (including myself). All three movies have many things in common: "dazzling" creature and set design, plots about war, and one-dimensional characters. Battle for Terra in particular has almost the exact same plot as Avatar: the humans are the bad guys. One human soldier finds himself behind enemy lines and befriending the peaceful aliens, and then turning against his own (violent) race for the betterment of everyone. The only two reasons that Avatar seems to be getting a pass is that it's more expensive and much longer, which gives the false illusion of greater depth and imagination.

I will concede that Cameron's 3D computer animation looks terrific (far better than that of Battle for Terra) although no more terrific than something like Up. Except that Cameron has developed the annoying and trendy penchant for shaking the camera around during "tense" moments, which -- given the 3D glasses -- is a very bad idea. (Maybe the should issue barf bags along with the glasses.) The Na'vi are graceful and beautiful, though I couldn't help thinking that they represent a kind of impossible ideal shape for humans: they look like very thin runway models, but with a superhero's muscles.

But frankly, it's asking a lot for people to sit through a movie this long without one honest moment of truth from any of the characters, except for maybe the one in which Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) emerges from her avatar chamber and demands a cigarette. The military guys are mean, the corporate guys (represented by Giovanni Ribisi) have no conscience, and the scientists are likeably dweeby. The hero is appropriately serious except for the occasional stupid wisecrack (and the faux-poetic narration), and the girl is equal parts tough and pretty, but with no other layers. The rest of the Na'vi are almost total ciphers, without a hint of humor or pathos. And since none of the characters actually say anything interesting, they're left to describe the action to us in Cameron's imbecilic dialogue. For example, there are some floating mountains around which most of the action takes place, and it is revealed that an unseen force there messes up the instrument panel in the aircraft. Cameron explains this fact to us at least three more times, just in case it was too complicated for us.

I think, ultimately, that's what irritated me the most about Avatar. It's not very smart, but it speaks down to its audience as if it were not only smart, but smarter than all of us. Rather than showing intelligence, it's a hype machine. It claims to re-invent the way movies are made and the way in which we watch them, but it contains nothing new. It's long, and therefore it claims to be an "epic," and therefore "bigger" and therefore "better" than all other films. But really it's just long. It wants to dazzle and impress, but does so without the benefit of an emotional or personal connection; it's a light show. James Horner's truly awful score -- by far the most awful thing in the movie -- chants and blares at us in an unforgiving way, strangling the audience rather than guiding it. But the hype machine wins. Try using logic to explain any of this to the movie's converts (many of whom were converted long before they even saw the movie) and you will be refuted by hyperbole. According to the popular conceit, Avatar is the biggest, greatest movie of all time, and you and your logical deconstruction of the movie can go take a flying leap.

But I stand my ground. Rather than recommending Avatar, I urge sci-fi fans to seek out a much better movie from earlier this year, Duncan Jones' Moon. This is what science fiction actually is: fiction based on an idea having something to do with science. And usually there are human characters involved too.

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