James Cameron is doing very well. Titanic, his last film, is the top grossing movie of all time. His new film, Avatar, is currently the second biggest grossing film in history.
I just let out a huge sigh as I wrote that line.
Now let me start with this. I am not a James Cameron hater at all. I do not feel Titanic has aged well but I enjoyed it well enough at the time. I think True Lies is a great film and both Terminator films were solid entertainment. Aliens is an impressive achievement, especially for a sequel, and I even liked much of The Abyss. So I figured Avatar would be overall impressive. Of course in some ways it is. In other ways, I feel it is lazy and embarrassing.
First off, are the visuals great? Mostly… yes. The 3D is good enough and what I appreciated the most about the film was it did not go for the obvious "let's throw a knife at the audience" type of stunt. Many critics are admitting the script is just not strong. But they are so blown away by the visuals they are overlooking the script. To me this is bizarre. Most films don't get this type of pass. The visuals also hurt the film, and I'll explain how.
I think my biggest issue with the film was knowing I was watching a live action/animation film along the lines of Song Of the South and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This made it difficult for me to get emotional when Cameron wanted me to. If somehow the technology of effects had made the Na'Vi look like they were even in the same dimension as the humans, I think I could have suspended disbelief enough.
In Dances With Wolves, a white guy is accepted by Native Americans — people different in race and culture. Here we have a white guy accepted by cartoons. Yes he becomes a cartoon himself but showing the "real" actors with the Na'Vi seemed like something Cameron was doing his best to avoid. When the two do merge at the end, I just could not think anything other than "Well, look at the animation with that live actor."
Now I know it’s not exactly animation. But it sure looks like it. As much as I was impressed with many of the visuals, I was half expecting Bob Hoskins to show up and yell at a rabbit.
While I can believe Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana together, Sam Worthington and animated, blue, 10-foot tall with a tail Zoe Saldana is harder to get emotionally connected to. At the end of the film this is what is asked of us.
So what about that story? Shouldn't we be allowed to expect more from a film that took 15 years to make? Why not throw another million in the budget for a better writer?
Earth, and specifically America, is the bad guy in the film, represented by the gung ho cliche Colonel Miles Quaritch, who says things like "shock 'n' awe." Then we have the god awful, annoying Giovanni Ribisi, who says he doesnt care if we kill the children of the "blue monkeys" if he gets his oil, er, unobtanium. We get it, America is bad. Now here, shell out 12 dollars per ticket, you capitalist pigs.
A scientist that becomes an Avatar never interacts with the hero, Jake, in that world, and it feels like his whole character is unnecessary. Sigourney Weaver's Avatar wears a Stanford University t-shirt. In a way, she looks like that pet whose owners have decided to dress like a person. Wouldn't the Na'Vi ask what the heck that t-shirt is and why she wears it? Maybe she was recruiting Na'Vi to attend some Phish concerts in her multicolored bus.
Given the resources and money to do whatever he wants, Cameron has forgotten basics. Basics that are still necessary. But maybe the larger and sadder point is that this is exactly the script the studio would have wanted. "It's worked before, it will work again."
With the risk of high money spent on visuals, no other risk on story could be taken. Which makes an attempt at a great picture not even exist.