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Avatar (2009)

Mollified by Shiny Objects

“He’s a demon set loose on the earth to lower the standards, end of fucking story.”

Bill Hicks

Everything you’ve heard about Avatar is true. Director James Cameron has revolutionized digital filmmaking in a way that can rightfully be called “game-changing” (assuming, that is, he allows others to play in his spiffy new sandbox). The 3-D characters and environments that he and his team of effects gurus have brought to life on the planet Pandora leave video game graphics behind and bridge the uncanny valley; both flesh-and-blood and CG performers are finally able to share the virtual stage without noticeable green screen issues, such as fake-looking backgrounds or mismatched eye-lines. I believed just about every second of what I saw on the screen.

So what?

I was bored to tears by this movie. I cannot recommend it as a theatrical experience to anyone. And I’ll go a step further, with a shout-out to the unlikeliest of sources, Rush Limbaugh:

I hope Avatar fails.

This is not likely to happen, but I would be thrilled if Cameron fell on his face and couldn't land another directing job for twelve years.

I should probably back up. Before the first trailer came out, I was pretty jazzed to see what Cameron had been working on (in earnest) for the past four years; I’d heard the stories about mind-blowing technology that would immerse the audience in a truly alien world. I love any innovation that leads to a new and engaging movie-going experience. But when the trailer hit, my stomach sank; the entire story was laid out in two minutes, it seemed, and that story was Dances with Wolves in Space.

By now, this is a trite criticism. It also happens to be true. I approached the film with cautious optimism (timid critic’s lingo meaning “skepticism”), and hoped that the film would contain many surprises not found in the previews; a reasonable assumption, considering its two-and-a-half-hour run-time. But, no, there is nothing in Avatar that will surprise anyone who’s ever paid attention during most any movie.

The plot involves a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (fittingly bland cipher Sam Worthington) who agrees to help the military/industrial complex remove a race of blue-skinned aliens from their home so that said m/i complex can mine a rare ore. The planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans, so Sully links psychically to an “avatar”, a hybrid creature that looks like one of the natives, but which is remote-controlled by a person in a sleep chamber; the idea is to get in good with the locals and convince them to leave peaceably, instead of wasting tons of expensive ammunition on a messy genocide. On his mission, Sully falls in love with an alien princess and...Jesus, this synopsis is a waste of time.

The characters in Avatar—such as they are—fail to elicit any emotion other than frustration. Sully is an idiot, and a greedy one at that; he begins the film by agreeing to sell out an entire species for a new pair of legs and ends it by realizing that human beings are the real monsters. Give me a fucking break. This movie takes place in 2154, apparently in a reality where conscience and self-awareness are as scarce as that ore. In fairness, Sully is a Christopher Nolan sketch compared to his fellow marines, who are simply kill-happy thugs that do nothing but bark lines that end in “people” and shout that “Ooh-rah” bullshit. What’s worse is that they were created by the same guy who gave us the very interesting Corporal Hicks in Aliens almost twenty-four years ago.

Speaking of Aliens, remember how slimy Paul Reiser’s Burke was? Well, in Avatar, we get the same character, this time played by Giovanni Ribisi. He’s the company man, the agent of evil, the sharp-dressed, smarmy worm. The key difference is that Burke had an actual arc, beginning as a person trusted by the protagonist, who reveals himself to be the film’s villain. Ribisi may as well have worn a foam dollar sign costume while brandishing a ray gun (actually, half my problem with his character was that the wrong actor played him: anyone who’s watched HBO’s Entourage will immediately recognize Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold character in Ribisi’s poor imitation.).

The other characters are as stock as broth; none more so than the Na’vi aliens, whose culture apparently stems from an ancient fable called "Last of the Dancing Mohican Root Wolves". Consider the main Na'vi cast: Wise, stern tribe leader? Check. Rebellious, spunky princess with a thing for outsider bad boys? Check. Jealous alpha-male warrior who will eventually bond with said outsider bad boy? Check. Seriously, these aren’t even archetypes we’re talking about anymore, they’re Xeroxes.

Aside from the first paragraph, I haven’t spent any time on the visuals. Frankly, they don’t deserve to be mentioned. Cameron has done some truly amazing things with the technology, but they service dialogue, characters and situations that are worth no one’s time. I’ve heard the argument that one does not go to a movie like Avatar for the story, that it’s all about the visuals. Sorry, but I happen to respect my mind, and if someone asks me to turn it off--for any reason, much less to appreciate art--I can only call "bullshit". Besides, if that line of thinking had any validity whatsoever, then The Phantom Menace and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be the gold standard of science fiction filmmaking; also, there would be no such thing as a bad movie, as long as said movie had enough polish and CG.

It’s horrifying to think that this script has been around for fourteen years. In the nearly three hours it plays out, the narrative fails to address what happened to Earth, or the schools the Earthlings established to educate the Na’vi, or why their village was the only location from which the ore could be mined (especially if the humans only needed very small amounts for their purposes--whatever those were). We also never learn about Sully's life beforehand or what kind of a man he was supposed to be; his entire character boils down to bullet points: marine, twin brother who's dead, no legs. I’m not asking for a full-blown history lesson, but it would have been preferable to the countless journeys through forests and floaty mountain waterfalls teeming with creatures that could only be considered spectacular to people without imagination. It’s obvious that the story was just a skeleton onto which James Cameron would hang his blue gorilla suit dressed in a Technicolor Dreamcoat; which is why I feel fine reciprocating the lack of emotional investment: he doesn’t care, which means I can’t care.

In a perfect world, blockbusters would satisfy the mind and the eyes. This lowest-common-denominator pandering has to stop. There aren’t enough thirteen-year-old boys on the planet with enough disposable income and free time to recoup a $300 million budget, so why not pack the screenplay with challenging ideas, characters you can remember and root for, and maybe even a story that forces audiences to go back a couple of times to fully figure out? There’s no law that says a film can’t contain “bad-ass” imagery and brain-teasing plot twists.

As a side note to any future directors who might be reading: if you plan on leaving the story behind, at least make the visuals somewhat fresh. Cameron steals so liberally from Aliens that were Avatar released by any studio other than Fox, he would’ve been staring down a $300 million lawsuit. From the drop-ships to the motion sensor readouts to the marines’ armor, there’s nothing original here. I’d like to say he saved his innovation for the jungle life of the alien world, but, being the sci-fi/comic book junky that I am, I’ve seen it all before (perhaps not as lavishly rendered, but that’s not the point, is it?).

Avatar is not an epic. Avatar is not a classic. Landmark science fiction films tell us conventional stories in unconventional ways; 2001: A Space Odyssey presented alien encounters as they had never been considered before; Star Wars hid Joseph Campbell’s paradigms in a blend of Saturday-serial homage and a universe of previously unimagined (or at least unseen) scope; Aliens brought us a contemporary military operation on a desolate alien planet, with an enemy that had evolved since the last time we, the audience, encountered it. Twenty years from now, Avatar will simply be that movie James Cameron did with the primitive CG characters that everyone will be too embarrassed to admit they thought looked really cool at the time.

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