Why, you might ask, am I reviewing Avatar in this segment? It’s not really sci-fi horror. True enough. And yet, in its own way, Avatar is more terrifying than Sunshine, the Thing, and 28 Days Later rolled onto one. It is terrifying that such a mediocre movie could go on to be nominated for best picture and receive a score of 83 on Rotten Tomatoes (the original score, before the critics got over the hype and began to finally come to their senses, was much higher).
If you look at critics’ review of effects flicks like Skyline, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Battle: Los Angeles, you’ll see that they usually say the same thing, something along the lines of ‘great visual effects can’t make up for a lackluster story and characters.’ Well, apparently these critics are willing to eat their words so long as the special effects are sufficiently pretty. The blurb on Rotten Tomatoes about Avatar says this: “more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but Avatar reaffirms James Cameron’s singular gift for imaginative, absorbing filmmaking.”
There is nothing imaginative about this movie. The plot needs no synopsis, because quite simply it is Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai/Pocahontas, except in space, which I guess means it’s different. The culture of the blue cat people (Na’vi, they’re called) is undeveloped and simplistic. Their society is portrayed as so wonderfully utopian (in stark contrast to the militaristic, greedy humans) that it’s almost insulting. It’s as if James Cameron felt we couldn’t have rooted for the Na’vi unless they were perfect in every way–culturally, spiritually, physically, you name it. Yet the Na’vi are so perfect that they’re annoyingly unrealistic. As you look at their sleek, sexy blue bodies (imagine how the interspecies romance would have played out had the aliens of Pandora not looked conveniently like sexed-up humans with USB devices in their hair and cute tails), their gorgeous big Disney eyes, and their painfully adorable little cat noses, you can’t help but feel like a puppet, with James Cameron pulling on the emotional strings. He’s determined to make you love his Na’vi, damn it, no matter what it takes.
The unoriginal plot might not have been such problem had the story of Avatar been well told. After all, a lot of Shakespeare plays are pretty cliche, too. But this writing ain’t nothing like Shakespeare.
Apart from the visual effects, which are undeniably outstanding on a technical level (though lacking the stylistic flair of movies like Sunshine or even 300), Avatar is an exercise in mediocrity. Mediocre writing, mediocre acting, you name it. In every way that counts, Avatar is painfully average.
Sam Worthington does an admirably bland job portraying the flat and unmemorable Jake Sully, our protagonist, whose one defining characteristic seems to be a mild form of mental retardation–after being told by a scary, scar-faced sergeant that everything on Pandora wants to kill you, he proceeds to run around the place like a giddy toddler, touching every plant he can get his grubby blue avatar fingers on. Zoe Saldana is predictable as Neytiri, whose character is exactly what you’d expect–the obligatory tree-loving, attractive, proud and confident native chick. The villains are so over-the-top and lacking in nuance that they’re actually amusing at times. And even Sigourney Weaver is unable to bring anything new to her character, who is your usual in-your-face, smartass (read: bitchy) authority figure.
The story plods along at a surprisingly slow pace, and Avatar really feels like the three hour movie it is. It takes more than two hours for the promised action scenes to finally arrive, which wouldn’t be a problem, if the dialogue that filled those two hours wasn’t so ploddingly tedious.
At least Avatar is trying. You can tell it honestly wants to be a good movie. It wants to deliver a meaningful message in an engaging way, it just doesn’t quite now how to do this. It’s like James Cameron is a little kid who managed to scribble a picture out of crayons and is proudly showing it off, unaware that it’s not the next Mona Lisa. You almost want to give the guy a hug–until you remember this crayon scribble earned him billions of dollars. Despite its financial success, though, Avatar is no Transformers–it’s not just a blockbuster shelled out to make a few quick bucks. It’s plain that James Cameron put a lot of heart into this film, and it’s a shame that his hubris led him to think he was capable of writing the screenplay when he probably should have hired someone better to do the job.
When people (especially critics, who ought to know better) say that, despite its plot, Avatar is a good movie because of its visual splendor, I fear for the future of the movie industry. As Red Letter Media brilliantly says, if Avatar was a theme park ride, I probably wouldn’t complain so much about the story. But the sad fact is, Avatar is not a ride. It’s a movie. A feature film. And the two most important parts of a movie are, generally speaking:
1. the characters
2. the story
It’s these aspects that enable your movie to form an emotional connection with the audience. All the gunships and dragon-things and alien horses in the world can’t make me care, but give me a strong character and a story worthy of that character, and I’ll sit through your three-hour extravaganza and beg for more when it’s over.
As for Avatar, I found myself, especially towards the end, becoming bored. Bored with the endless blather about the goddess Eywa, bored by the idiocy of listening to characters expound on the necessity of obtaining unobtainium (ah, James Cameron, your subtle irony gets me), bored by the forced love story and the sheer predictability of it all.