Avatar is big, loud, and bodacious—and totally bankrupt as a cinematic experience. I tried to like this spectacular monstrosity at every turn, especially with a new actor named Sam Worthington in the lead—he’s much better in Terminator: Salvation—but enduring Avatar is like watching an epic through beady little eyes with the droning homily that everything small is beautiful.
The three-hour computer-animated film, seen in the exorbitant three-dimensional (3D) perspective with requisite heavy glasses at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard, is directed by James Cameron (Titanic). The story, which takes place in the future, centers upon a crippled young Marine (Worthington) who is assigned to take his fallen brother’s place in an ongoing battle between man and tribalistic blue creatures in a place called Pandora. Preparing for the task, the paraplegic hauls himself into a high-tech pod to assume the role of his “avatar” and pretend to be one of the aliens.
The script is fully loaded with bad dialogue, blank characters, and a hackneyed plot. While the animation is clear, crisp, and consistent, the scenery looks fake. Ten or 15 minutes into the action, you’re either hooked by or detached from the stale material. Obviously, I was in the latter camp, and I admit I do not know how anyone could become interested in the empty vessels that move their mouths onscreen. But the film has its fans: the woman sitting next to me, judging by her sighs, sniffling, and audible “awww”s, was emotionally engaged.
It’s quite a world. Marine Jake Sully enters on his wheelchair, a grunt in a militaristic Earth troika comprised of Big Business—portrayed as evil, of course—the military, also evil, natch, and something that can only be described as pseudo-science. Sully, who has lost the use of his legs—a determinant factor—dives into his avatar, oblivious to the politics of the three forces of Earth’s civilization. He wants a piece of the action so badly that he breaks every rule. When he suits up as the blue alien version of his human body, through an unexplained process by which a real, physical creature co-exists at the command of Sully’s mind, his avatar runs as fast as possible across lush, green Pandora.
It should be an exhilarating moment, but it isn’t. We know nothing about this man, what makes him tick, the details of how he lost the use of his legs, why we should care about his plight, his goals, his values, or his relationship with his late brother. Watching Sully’s big, blue approximation take off is as exciting as folding the laundry.
His exuberance is noted by Sigourney Weaver’s character, Grace, a cigarette-smoking salt of the earth type who runs the avatar lab and studies, knows, and understands the blue aliens, known as the Na’vi clan. She’s been examining them for a long time, much to the chagrin of the stereotypically evil profit-driven businessman, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who is more or less calling the shots in the Pandora incursion (it isn’t really a war). He wants to extract a valuable natural resource on Pandora but the clan won’t let him have it and they apparently can’t be convinced to do so. This is why the military, represented by the evil Miles (Stephen Lang), wants to go in and raze the clan’s native jungle, with its mysteriously spiritual trees, grab the goods and be done with it. The evil businessman and the evil military man clash with Grace, setting up the story’s central conflict. If it sounds like a C-grade sci-fi series, it is—and Avatar heads south from there.
Blank slate Sully screws up his first assignment, a basic orientation to Pandora. The moron goes rogue within a few minutes of his first exercise—he’s assigned to infiltrate the alien collective—straying into the wild without permission and confronting a giant rhinoceros-like creature, disturbing the surroundings, and endangering everyone in his unit. We’re apparently supposed to find this adorable, with mother hen Grace (Weaver) practically trailing the reckless idiot with simple instructions on how to stay alive. After getting himself into further accidental trouble, Sully winds up stumbling into a lovely native girl (Zoe Saldana) and plopping into the best real estate on Pandora. Think Return of the Jedi with assorted mystical Ewok types scurrying about and cute little fireflies fluttering in formation. Avatar is pure fantasy.
The blue clan types are sinewy and they’re awfully limber but they aren’t terribly bright. In fact, that’s Avatar’s point; primitive aliens are depicted as spiritually superior to the distinctively Western Earthlings because they are primitive. Sully, who has been sent to betray them by gaining their trust and leading the evil capitalists and soldiers to the jackpot—the issue of how the substance will be helpful to humans is never explored—of course has second thoughts once Saldana’s athletic female alien, who tutors him in tribal rites, makes her play.
Everything looks like an expensive video game; colors are vibrant, contrast is clear, pictures are often amazing and none of it makes a difference. Undisciplined Sully isn’t the smartest, the best, or the most noble Marine—he acquires something of an underbite as an alien—so it isn’t remotely involving when he suddenly springs into action as some sort of heroic environmentalist (if there could be such a thing) defending Pandora.
Avatar’s world is wholly unoriginal: each aspect is derivative of Earth and its inhabitants: aliens have flesh—one of the more surly male beasts has a Mohawk hairdo—with feet, toes, and fingers, and there are other approximations of Earthbound creatures such as goats, birds, and dogs. Pandora has water, clouds, mountains, and trees and manmade things interact and survive there just fine. The clan uses bows and arrows. Pandora is like Earth with big, blue aliens and slightly exaggerated plants and animals. You half expect the Statue of Liberty to show up at the end ala Planet of the Apes.
Form does not follow function. The blue beings have tails, though they stand upright, and other creatures have exotic, colorful characteristics that appear to have no reason to exist. Much of the action suddenly happens in slow motion, without warning and for no apparent reason, as if the director is trying to say something, yet slower scenes are less effective than faster scenes. In either case, the eyes sort of collapse from the fatigue of watching vacant characters talk in a strange language (with subtitles) best described as the ramblings of an environmentalist college professor delivered by a befuddled fairy godmother. That all of this happens in 3D makes it a real slog.
But just when you’re resigned to watching an eco-love story, Avatar injects its worst stuff in microbursts—man is evil, civilization is evil, nature must be worshipped and the tribe must be obeyed—by way of its loose matriarchy (Woman is God; males are hopelessly brutal, mindless savages) amid pleas for humility, faith, and religion. The Na’vi tribe is a cult, complete with a mother and a father, and the individual is ritualistically assimilated into the collective—The People, capitalized like that—with laying on of hands, chants, and prayers.
“Man is a great evil”, someone declares during the 3-hour tour of Pandora. This sums up Avatar’s philosophy, though, as with radical Islam, it’s really Western Man that’s regarded as evil. In the end, watching a dim, foul-mouthed, handicapped Marine become a bowl of emasculated mush while trying to drag everyone human down to his level is less than uplifting. Avatar’s grating anti-civilization theme, rigged with the screen’s campiest stereotypical villain—a white male with a Southern accent dubbed “Poppa Dragon”—in years, trolling around the jungle in something leftover from Transformers, is at least largely consistent, though the clan’s pacifism quickly turns to bloodlust.
Its primitivism precludes any sign of progress—there is no discernible social system for peaceful co-existence among the belligerent tribesmen—and apparently gays and unmarried couples need not apply for tree-hugging membership. There is an Aliensesque butch human female who paints her helicopter like it’s an Indian brave and tromps around like Xena the Warrior Princess while people say things like “we’re goin’ in!” and it all plays out exactly as you’d expect. If this is the new Hollywood, it fits perfectly with the essential meaning of the new American government’s philosophy: man is evil, so the individual must be subordinated—and man must therefore be eradicated from the universe, a perfectly appropriate and horrifying theme for an ominous new year.