Native tongue

James Cameron's penchant for muscular, eye-popping spectacle eclipses Avatar's flimsy storytelling

Dec 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

I should know better. Every critical bone in my body says I should be much harder on Avatar than I am. After all, it's James Cameron's first film in 13 years (since Titanic). It's not like he didn't have enough time to polish his story to a high gloss. Unfortunately, Avatar's screenplay is a bit embarrassing — not only for its cleverless, on-the-nose dialogue, two-dimensional characters and hackneyed, long-winded plotting, but also because of its corny white-man-goes-native-and-becomes-savior-of-the-savages storyline. 

Just like George Lucas did on his prequels, Cameron has made the fatal mistake of penning Avatar all by his lonesome. A savvy co-writer would have no doubt talked him out of naming Giovanni Ribisi's corporate villain Parker Selfridge or a priceless mineral "unobtainium." Why not just call it "reallystupidnameium?"

In truth, Titanic's writing wasn't much better. It just had better actors (DiCaprio and Winslet) to sell its poke-you-in-the-eye obviousness. Scripting has never been Cameron's strength. His films, even the best ones, have excelled because of their snappy pacing, intriguing set pieces and brilliantly shot and edited action sequences. And while Avatar has many of those attributes, Cameron makes the mistake of turning his Dances With Wolves meets Tron into a slow-burning two-hour-and-forty-minute saga. Worse, he forgets to populate his story with compelling or engaging characters. Unlike Aliens or The Abyss, which featured personalities that popped, Avatar's sole acting virtue comes via Zoë Saldana (Star Trek's Uhura), whose soulful portrayal of the blue-hued alien Neytiri wins the audience's affections and concern. You know something's off when the biggest heart-in-your-throat moment entails the destruction of a giant tree.

Nevertheless, where Cameron skimps on character he invests heavily (how else do you pump a budget to $230 million?) in 3-D visual pyrotechnics and digital verisimilitude. Witty wordplay and sophisticated storytelling have been traded for sumptuous vistas, astonishing creatures and breathtaking landscapes. If you ever wondered what a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film would look like, Avatar is a damn good approximation. The film is a magnificent technical achievement, immersing you in an alien world that simultaneously overwhelms and seduces your senses. More surprisingly, Cameron's adrenalized "event" film sports an unabashed Green agenda and anti-war message that some audiences might balk at. Luckily he tempers them with epic spectacle and his impeccable ability to deliver eye-popping combat scenarios. The film's action-packed 40-minute final battle is so vast in scale and ambition that it pushes the envelope of what's possible on screen. 

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic jarhead sent to the distant moon Pandora to stand in for his dead twin brother. A perfect genetic match, he's transferred into his scientist sibling's "avatar," a human-alien hybrid created to win the hearts and minds of the planet's indigenous natives. You see, Pandora is home to a precious mineral that promises to solve all of blackened Earth's energy woes, and the giant blue tree-hugging Na'vi live atop its richest vein. Of course, it isn't long before Jake comes to love this lush, exotic new world, learning the ways of the Na'vi, riding cool dragon-like creatures and falling for princess Neytiri. Eventually push comes to shove and the evil, monolithic mining company lets their Duke Nukem Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) settle things with a shock and awe campaign that "... will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won't come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!" 

Even with his colorless dialogue, old-time storytelling and surprise-free plotting, Cameron is smart enough to layer in intriguing ideas about identity and the different ways avatars reflect the values of those that control them. Whether it's soldiers in walking robotic tanks, peacenik scientists entering alien simulacra, or the Nav'i symbiotically linking with the creatures on their planet, how interconnection is served, severed or corrupted is Avatar's central theme (along with a not-so-subtle comment on the ways humans distance themselves from the destruction they wreak). 

Ultimately, what makes Avatar worth both your time and dime is Cameron's uncanny talent to nail an audience to its seat, drop them into a fantastic world filled with fantastic sights, sounds and creatures, and make them care about his story. And with his use of 3-D technology (don't bother with the 2-D version), he's found the perfect medium for the epic scope of his vision. Say what you will about the man's ego, Avatar is filmmaking at its most muscular, rapturous and passionate.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].