James Cameron’s Avatar is his first film since 1997’s Titanic, and Avatar looks like it’s actually going to top that monster ship as far as revenue goes. Reportedly, with PR expenses, Avatar costs somewhere between 250 and 500 million dollars and one would think with that kind of investment, Cameron and corporation would have come up with a better script and a more substantial film. Avatar is riddled with the same level of asinine dialogue that sunk Cameron’s cruise ship, a plot that blatantly echoes Dances with Wolves, hopelessly two-dimensional, stereotyped cardboard villains, and a mixed bag of CGI visuals which often look like Gil Kane comic characters turned into blue rubber toys amidst a computer game version of a Franz Marc rain forest.
Avatar opens in the distant future on the planet Pandora. A paraplegic named Jake (Sam Worthington, the latest wooden hunk) is a volunteer on Pandora’s Earthling military base. The native Pandorans justifiably mistrust the “Sky People” who want to strip-mine their lush world to save a dying Earth. So, the Sky People have an ingenious plot to infiltrate the Pandorans by linking human consciousness into a Pandoran avatar. All-American swell guy Jake seems the perfect volunteer, as he is promised his lost legs back. So, Jake gets turned into a twelve foot blue native. The problem is that the Sky People need pesky “green” scientists to help them and, naturally those lovers of the land are going to throw a monkey wrench into Operation Pandora.
Predictably, once Jake interacts with the natives, he bonds with them and even falls in love with their princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, playing Pocahontas, in all but name. She even saves Jake from her Father/King). Just like in Dances with Wolves, ironically, it is the white guy Jake, transformed into a Pandoran, who becomes the greatest native of all. Jake’s indigenous rival warrior is, of course, of the hot-headed variety: he initially dislikes the white warrior, loses his girlfriend to Jake, sees the light and valiantly dies for his rival and the bigger cause. Shades of a dozen Tarzan movies abound. So much for cultural imperialism. Scientist Sigourney Weaver, in yet another variation of her Ripley character from Cameron’s Aliens, initially mistrusts Jake but eventually teams with him to save the planet and she too becomes a martyr.
Saddled with Cameron’s pedestrian writing and direction, Stephen Lang, as the bad guy Marine Colonel, employs every sophomoric military villain cliché from the last fifty years. He even uses racial slurs: “Find out what the blue monkeys want” he tells Jake, through grit teeth, in his best gravelly marine voice. One could easily substitute “gooks” or “redskins” for “blue monkeys.” Unfortunately, that performance parallels the film’s attempts to obviously promote its “progressive ecological theology.” Rarely, if ever, do “villains” believe they are in the wrong and, more often than not, raping of the land, through forced military occupation, is brought about by misguided intentions, human error, taking the quicker “end justifies the means” route rather than absolute in-the-know wrongdoing. The film’s message would have been much better served if it had expressed the cause and effect of ignorance and simplistic fast food-type solutions, rather than outright evil.
“The end justifies the means” angle is hardly explored. We are told early on that the Earth’s despoiling is the reason for Operation Pandora, but then that is completely dropped. We never glimpse a state of desperate emotional concern for Earth’s survival in any of the stock, stereotype villains.
Joining the Colonel is the faceless corporate head, whose only concern is profit, ecology be damned. Cameron has blatantly visited this territory before in Aliens, which also featured Weaver as the feminist rebel. The good guys might as well be wearing white hats to the bad guys black ones. If Cameron had done this for humor, or if he had sardonically played off Americana clichés, it would have worked much better. Instead, the portrayals merely come off as big, bland and dumb.
There are numerous references to the late Bush regime: ” the ‘shock-and-awe’ campaign,” “they won’t come within a thousand clicks of here again,” “make no mistake.” It’s all played out with cartoonish character development.
Instead of a search for hard won solutions, Cameron throws in the inevitable battle finale, which we are supposed to cheer. The ensuing carnage caters to twelve year old testosterone levels.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Avatar is a high tech hodge-podge of dozens of movies that came before it, including Cameron’s previous films, along with King Kong, Star Wars, Jurassic Park and a slew of westerns, just to name a few. Cameron’s Christ /Mary allegories from his Terminator films are replaced with Tarzan and Jane/Pocahontas and Captain Smith, who are far less interesting. The blue CGI characters are smooth and devoid of real human expressiveness.
In the hands of a good writer, Avatar could have been a revolutionary film. Despite the sermonizing and the hype, it is corporate, by-the-numbers, piously patronizing, kitsch filmmaking with the main hero, despite being stuck in an avatar, still being a white guy.