Avatar (2009)

Eighteen years. Eighteen years! Eighteen years? Fans of one of the greatest sci-fi directors of all time waited eighteen years for director James Cameron to return to the sci-fi genre. And we got Avatar, a film that makes George Lucas’s betrayal of the Star Wars franchise look like a triumphant return in comparison. Avatar isn’t just a bad film, it’s a horrible film, a film that takes ideas that could have been good and turns them into childish propaganda.

The setup is lengthy and complex, practically promising an intriguing tale. Humans are conducting a mining operation on Pandora, a breathtaking planet that is home to a mineral that sells for millions back on Earth. The problem is that the natives, a proud blue skinned race called the Na’vi that stands a good six feet taller than the average human, are sitting on the largest deposit on the planet. And these Na’vi don’t take kindly to the humans intruding on their land.

So what’s the solution? Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is head of a scientific project that allows humans to control bodies that look like the Na’vi in an attempt to negotiate peacefully with them. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) thinks that a show of force is the best solution and proposes they intimidate the natives into moving. Caught in-between the two is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who ends up in Grace’s program after his brother dies in an accident and someone is needed to take his place. But what he doesn’t suspect is that he’ll begin to feel for the Na’vi after being rescued by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), princess of the Na’vi.

At first glance it’s the Pocahontas story. At second glance it’s the Pocahontas story with some mildly interesting political intrigue. After watching the film it’s the Pocahontas story taken to the worst possible end, a tale so childish and naïve that it betrays the beauty of what makes the Pocahontas myth so powerful. I kept hoping James Cameron would simply use it as a starting point for a much more complex and interesting story, but instead he dumbs it down and takes the easiest possible way out.

And by taking the easy way out I mean that he wrote an easy tale where good and evil are as clear as night and day. He make evil so maniacally evil and stupidly blind that they can’t be taken seriously. When Miles Quaritch starts going into evil SOB mode he becomes more implausible and fake than any of the blue skinned Na’vi he’s killing. Likewise, the man who heads up this operation, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is painted as some cold hearted freak with zero dimensions of depth. James Cameron just crafted the most unlikable pieces of cardboard characters he could so they could be easily knocked down by our heroes.

The problem is that evil is never ever this simple in the real world. James Cameron made this black and white world which can be summed up as: Na’vi good, human bad.  It’s sloppy and boring storytelling without any complexity, tension or drama. And it wouldn’t be that hard to give the bad guys some real ambiguity. What is so important about this rock? Sure it makes millions, and greed is a motivator, but it’s a simple one and doesn’t fit with these characters. What if this rock was a cure for cancer but the problem was you had to take it regularly, like once a month. What if there wasn’t enough to go around? And what if the Parker character had some wife dying of cancer and he needed to get to this big deposit to save her and millions of others? Then the tension becomes how far do you go to save human lives? That’s a much more interesting conflict to pin the action on than something as simple and base as greed.

Instead James Cameron asks us all to be psychopaths and delight in the deaths of hundreds of human soldiers that are simply following the orders of one raving madman. Down with the human! They shot a tree. Kill them! Do you really think that human life is less valuable than the life of a tree? If you do then I ask you to take a step back and think about that belief.

Don’t get me wrong, I like trees. In fact, some of my favorite movies are about trees. I love the Ents in Lord of the Rings, I love watching Andy Goldsworthy working with trees as his art in Rivers and Tides and Terrence Malick, who always features trees heavily in his movies, is my favorite director. But when you start crafting religions around magical trees that give off some electrical and spiritual energy you’ve lost me.

I’m guessing James Cameron went on some spiritual journey sometime in the past ten years and concluded that everything in the universe is connected into this one life force. So he decided to give the Na’vi this new aged religion. Yes, it’s a parallel to the beliefs of Native American, I can buy that. But what I can’t buy is how heavy-handed he presents it. Everything is connected because everything can physically connect to each other. How? The Na’vi have these long pony tails with glowly filaments on the end that can connect to various plants and animals. So it no longer becomes some spiritual connotation but a physical part of the story that destroys any semblance of tact and subtly.

And while we’re on the subject of heavy-handed, let’s talk about the film’s political agenda. So if you haven’t figured it out by now Avatar is pretty much a cautionary tale about the evils of the big bad business that will destroy the world and kill the environment.  Here is the problem with political agendas, the have a way of being peachier than a televangelist on Sunday morning. So as Cameron gives us exposition on this religion he’s shoving down our throats at every opportunity, he’s also wrapping it up with a nice little environmental message. It’s to the point where I’d go back and point to the depiction of evil as a direct result of Cameron’s desire to propagate his message of new age religion and environmentalism.

This is the kind of writing level I was at when I was thirteen. In fact, I wrote a story uncannily similar to this one where this soldier discovered that the big bad military was destroying trees (I never came up with a reasonable motivation) and he formed some underground army that fought back high tech weaponry with guerrilla tactics and bows and arrows. It was absolutely awful writing and I hope I destroyed it for the good of humanity. It’s just childish storytelling that springs out of this notion on teenaged rebellion against authority and this wacked out view that being a man has something to do with running around in the woods and killing people with a knife.

And even worse is that James Cameron doesn’t even give us characters to care about. I certainly don’t feel anything for the protagonist, despite his disability, because he has no personality like practically every other character.  They are all type:, the defiant scientist, the eager student, the buffoon, the psycho military commander and the sniveling business man. James Cameron wrote a plethora of characters I love: Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Vasquez, Hicks, John Conner in T2, The Terminator, Bishop and more. And here he couldn’t even give me one character that I even cared one iota for.  And when the entire third act of the film hinges on one ancillary character having a change of heart I don’t buy it for one moment. The film didn’t earn that change, the film didn’t develop that change and the film doesn’t even deserve to have any of its characters to be called characters. That’s an insult to good screenwriters who actually give their characters personalities.

But what about all that beautiful imagery? Yes, this film is beautiful, occasionally even breathtaking, and the 3D is used with more tact than I expected. I was expecting a lot more blatant shots where he emphasized the depth or had something jump from the background to the foreground quickly. But on the whole I couldn’t think of any shots that were just for the sake of the 3D. I still liked the use of 3D better in Up but only because I found it a lot easier to stop and appreciate the aesthetic quality it added due to the films slower pacing.

What I didn’t particularly care for was the Na’vi. Something about having a recognizable human likeness distorted into something inhuman was unsettling. I think it’s still on the cusp of the uncanny valley because it still looked just a bit too fake. Part of it is definitely the fact that the creatures are blue. It just makes them blatantly fake looking. And I must say to all those people who complained about Dr. Manhattan’s blue penis hanging out that I found the scantily clad Na’vi far more unsettling, maybe because I saw it as a blatantly 13-year-old fantasy.

If you are interested in Avatar I’d like to point you to another film that takes the same story but treats it with a lot more maturity and skill. Terrence Malick’s The New World takes the same Pocahontas myth but crafts a far more interesting and powerful tale without pettily choosing sides and preaching political agendas. If anything, part of the brilliance of The New World is in how apolitical it is. Instead, it simply crafts a tale in which the conflict is inevitable and both parties are as guilty as they are innocent.

Avatar is one of the most unintelligent, moronic films I’ve seen this year. If it wasn’t for such crimes against humanity asCrank: High Voltage and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, I would boldly proclaim this the worst film of the year. Yes it’s pretty, but all that proves is that if you put enough technologically astounding effects in your movies people will overlook the fact that you’ve written one of the shallowest stories of the decade.

I’m absolutely baffled that critics are being taken in by this picture. Is the state of film criticism so poor that one will hail technological progress even while it’s wrapped up in geopolitical, new aged propaganda rationalized through the mentality of a 13-year-old? What happened to criticizing a film based on such merits as good storytelling, well developed characters and compelling conflict? Apparently, 3D CGI covers up a multitude of bad screenwriting. If it takes James Cameron another eighteen years to make a sci-fi picture I’ll be grateful. That will give me eighteen years to forget Avatar existed by watching Aliens and Terminator 2 and remind myself that James Cameron can indeed write an intelligent screenplay.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) [Blu-ray]