This review is weeks behind, and everyone reading it has in all likelihood already seen Avatar and formed his/her own respective opinions on James Cameron's latest cinematic juggernaut. But screw you, this blog is as much for my benefit as it is for yours ("benefit" being an extremely flexible term that is defined as pretty much anything that won't give you cancer). This whole thing is my little exercise in writing and contemporary critique as part of my New Year's resolution to not have a completely worthless English major. So, here goes.
The first thing that anyone will say about Avatar when asked about the movie is that it's absolutely gorgeous, and it's true. The amount of work done to make this a visual masterpiece jumps out and shamelessly introduces itself like that excitable foreign kid on the first day of school. The only thing that I could think of while I was watching it was the scene in American History X where Edward Norton's character gets prison-raped by a giant burly neo-Nazi. How? The aesthetic spectacle of this movie and the level of detail in it, from the way the native life-forms actually look like they could have been photographed in National Geographic to the breathtaking scenery (in particular, the inexplicably floating mountains) just transfixes you and leaves you overwhelmed, only to lie there weeping to yourself in proverbial shock and awe. Sans Nazi skinheads and poorly guarded locker rooms, presumably. Skeptic that I am, I can't deny that I was amazed at the fluidity of the motion-capture animation here for the Na'vi people, such that they at least avoid drawing negative attention in the way that Jar Jar Binks and The Polar Express did.
But if Avatar's presentation is like sex for the eyes, then the brain is the roommate in the next room trying futilely to tune out the moaning. I enjoy movies and video games for their stories, and I'll be honest - I went into the theater expecting to be disappointed, based on the myriad reviews I'd read and heard in other places, and indeed I was (although whether that in itself is disappointing or simply ironic is up for debate). The "story" is horrifically cliche: "White guys invade an alien humanoid territory to exploit its natural resources. Meanwhile, the figureheads of each side fall in love while a war erupts around them, and slavish nature worship prevails over modern expansionism once again, because that is what the audience wants." On a whim, I saw Disney's Atlantis two weeks before seeing Avatar, and it is functionally identical. Actually, I enjoyed Atlantis more, mostly because of Moliere, the crazy little French dude with an almost sexual obsession with the dirt under his fingernails.
I don't buy the "Cameron was working on this movie for 15 years" story. The only part he was waiting on was the graphical software to come out to match his vision; the story got stuck in the back of the fridge for the entire time even when no one realized that it had already hit its expiration date a few decades prior. While I can't fault Cameron for thinking relatively big, I wrote stories with this kind of immersion when I was in middle school, hopped up on Mountain Dew and having Pokemon reruns serve as the extent of my knowledge of dialogue and character development. I found myself cheering for the evil Lieutenant Corporate Guy, egging him on to drop the bomb and put an end to the Na'vi, just because that would have been more innovative, in its own sick way, than watching a gang of cat-Smurfs in loincloths win in the same tired "progress is bad" sermon that I could have gotten by reading a book on American history.
The characters are as bad as the story itself. I don't consider it unrealistic to expect story characters to actually do something other than escort us to the next scene. But no one in Avatar serves to convey any message other than the "humans = greedy assholes" statement we've had the arts shove in our face ever since the book of Genesis. You can immediately and accurately recognize who's going to be a good guy or bad guy as soon as they appear. The good guys are mouthy know-it-alls with disabilities, ethnic stereotypes, and very short leashes; the bad guys are semi-literate, selfish meatheads with the latest toys and who serve mainly to start explosions and throw out thinly-veiled political commentary in the form of motivational non-sequiturs. Now that I think of it, that sounds basically like what would happen if we gave Joss Whedon 30 million dollars and told him to go nuts.
I don't get why directors insist on insulting us by trying to create epics with happy endings, no matter how contrived that makes the rest of the story. Why does the "feel-good movie" have to be one wherein the good guys go home happy and alive, and the bad guys end up as craters? A lot of perfectly good movies feature the "heroes" ending up dead, mutilated, ostracized, or otherwise removed from the utopian aesthetic ideal (think The Dark Knight, District 9, or even Watchmen). And no, I didn't consider Sigourney Weaver's character a character, let alone a protagonist. She spent most of the time getting in the way and tossing her hair like some kind of battle-ready shampoo model; I felt the same way when she died as I do when I unclog a backed-up toilet: "That takes care of *that* particular obstacle." I suspect that the main reason she was cast was because she really wanted to feature in another crappy sci-fi that included giant animatronic robot-suits. Word to Marvel: Keep her the hell away from the Iron Man franchise.
My point is, truly memorable heroes, and occasionally villains, grow as individuals and not simply plot devices. They explore the timeless heights and depths of human nature and society; they function as role models and warnings easily applicable to our unscripted and less-fantastic selves. And that's why I despised Avatar - when everyone else can make movies as pretty as this, it will simply be another bad movie because of its fundamental laziness in not even trying to create something else worth remembering.
Rating: 2 out of 5 anti-imperialist metaphors