James Cameron’s Avatar is through and through his baby—it promises a lot and, though it has very little in the way of stamina, it initially delivers in a big way. In the first hour, Cameron lets loose a barrage of technical wizardry that makes the film’s world one of the most dazzling and consistently engrossing cinematic fantasy lands of recent memory. Avatar doesn’t try to break any new ground with its generic story of a group of corporate commandos who seek to steal an indigenous alien population’s natural resources. At its core, the film is a cookie-cutter story of a soldier who switches sides once he finds out, as a lanky nude smurf, how green the grass is. Cameron is all too happy to be so conventional. He has the technology and knows he only has to use it to build a better jungle world of noble alien savages. He’s not the genre messiah, but clearly it doesn’t hurt to hype him up as such.
Cameron knows the viewer will recognize Avatar’s story from elsewhere, whether as the love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas or almost all of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (don’t judge me) and so tries to dazzle the viewer with “shock and awe,” as one scientist-cum-soldier puts it, laying bare both the film’s political context and aesthetic strategy. From there, once it’s successfully dazzled the viewer with enough technological firepower to keep Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay busy for several lifetimes, it’s mission should be, ahem, accomplished.
Cameron fans without memory problems aren’t so lucky. Avatar is plagued by the same issues found in his other, better-constructed films. He can only keep so many balls in the air without showing the strain. When it comes to world-building and detail-oriented craft, Cameron is as talented as they come. He is an action filmmaker, after all, and his films thrive on conceptual vigor, not a memorable story (it’s why Terminator 2: Judgment Day is his best film—it’s just one long chase scene). By the end, when he’s forced to ground himself and make the ideas he’s laid out in his playful set-up cohere into a narrative, he loses his edge fast. Unfortunately, that point starts when Avatar’s still got about 90 minutes to go. Flashes of brilliance do occur after that point (the final fight scene is terrific), but they’re hardly enough to prevent the film from becoming a gorgeous connect-the-dots space odyssey. (Note: Can somebody please hire Carrie Fisher to doctor Cameron’s scripts? The humor in them sucks and the emotional cruxes suffer because of it, to the point where one wonders just how much human interaction Cameron gets.)
The ultimate irony of Avatar is the way that its plot expressly defies Cameron’s limitations. We follow Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a soldier hired to replace his dead brother in the “Avatar” program, through which he places his consciousness into a native alien’s body so as to better gain the smurfs’ trust. Throughout his interactions on the planet, Sully continually questions whether or not what he’s experiencing is real or a dream, just as we’re meant to. It’s neither, though, because by that point Cameron has put his restraints on and buckled down to deliver a story and a fever dream. Even the brief moment of passion between Sully’s “avatar” and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), his local love interest, is too spare to be memorable (when it comes to overkill, Cameron—a product of the Hollywood system he’s continued to re-establish—always did prefer to push violence over sexuality: Avatar makes his Terminator films look positively dirty).
Sadder still and certainly less expected, a central part of the film’s heavy-handed thematic payoff (like, we’re all connected, man) is a bio-electric current that’s supposed to allow the planet to commune its inhabitants, all of whom have spindly hook-up ports in their pony-tails. This is one of the many signs of how Cameron’s audacious visuals are meant to shake viewers out of their complaisance. That’s a tall order, even with such radical 3-D technology at his disposal, considering that Cameron treats story like so much homework. (As it is, the planet’s mythology is so flat that it really does come across as the bastard child of Ferngully, Star Wars and so many other movies about natural energy—“The Force,” a boy named Delgo. Somewhere, William Castle is laughing his ass off at Cameron’s semi-successful attempt at grabbing his viewers by the throat.) If he was really serious about achieving his goals with whatever means necessary, Cameron would just make a 70-minute avant-garde film composed of nothing but chase scenes and exotic imagery. I believe Apocalypto needs a sequel.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books, and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press, and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.