Continuing 2009's trend of movies that don't deserve to make as much money as they do but do so because a large amount of people are very fucking stupid, we have Avatar, James Cameron's first technical theatrical release in over ten years. What did Cameron do before that? Well, he did a student film I have never seen, a terrible low-budget sequel to a barely watchable Joe Dante film, pissed Harlan Ellison off, pissed Ridley Scott off, made an environmentalist-agenda film used as an excuse to show off special effects, the greatest action film of all time (probably), a good action film, the best 3-D film of all time (to this day), a good romantic drama, a what-the-hell-is-this-thing, Dark Angel, ruined Solaris, made an uninteresting documentary, another fucking Titanic documentary jesus shut up already, a weird thing that doesn't appear to be available anywhere, and- oh, we're caught up. Before Avatar, Cameron was also somewhere in my top five directors, but... we'll get to that.
Avatar begins with a barrage of information about this world we are about to enter. PLEASE PUT ON YOUR THREE-DIMENSIONAL SIMULATORS NOW. Apparently important information (i.e. informaton that pertains to nothing plot important, really) is that hypersleep sucks ass, Jake Sully's twin brother is dead and it is very sad, and that he has inherited a high-profile and extremely expensive project without doing all the hard work. He gets an all-expenses-paid trip to dangerous planet Pandora and, hey, because he's a cripple and gots nothing better to do, let's do it, semper fi.
All of this is told through a voice-over that, one would think, would either continue throughout the film or end as soon as they show the reason behind it: his first video log entry. SHUT OFF VIDEO LOG, FADE IN TITLE. But nope, you can expect it to appear sporadically when the storytelling gets lazy.
Information left curiously absent includes details about the Avatar Project that Jake has been thrust into. Instance: If resources are scant then how can this project exist if both military personnel and the corporation funding the operation on Pandora find it useless? Fuck you, you don't get to know. There is absolutely no other way to communicate with the Na'vi or collect plant samples other than using these engineered Blue Things? Fuck you, no. If you die in the Matrix, do you die in the real world? Fuck your mouth shut, stupid, and watch the pretty things that are behind the other pretty things.
And that's one word that is mind-numbingly appropriate for Avatar: pretty. Cameron took great pains to make the movie 1) beautiful, 2) well-designed. Everything about Pandora wildlife looks like it actually exists. For certain, Cameron is finally putting all that underwater study to good use... making a movie that won't take the time to create three-dimensional characters but create three-dimensional special effects. Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen.
It's not early on that the movie falls apart. We have a silent explanation for Jake accepting the Pandora Job: solely so he could drive a Thing with legs. While it's over quick and effectively eliminates any interesting dilemmas developing in the future by making his eventual betrayal an OBVIOUS CHOICE, it alone serves more a purpose than what the film then uses him for: running around with curiously one-dimensional Sigourney Weaver Blue Thing, looking at plants and collecting specimins. Uh... why do they need Jake again? Oh right, shut up, I remember.
Well, what you can do is force the movie to make sense by bringing a bunch of information to it, if that helps. Weaver brings in Jake to fill the Blue Thing body so her budget isn't cut, keeping up a false pretense to keep her position on the planet and satisfy the also-curiously-one-dimensional Giovanni Ribisi. Fine, but imagining that this is the case makes me think of a better movie that just didn't happen, a movie that spends its time giving me pertinent information, rather than wasting it as much as it wastes its talented actors. That's called RATIONALIZING, my psychologist girlfriend tells me.
Sully becomes a valuable member to both sides, to the military for providing strategic information, scientific information to the scientists, and... uh... cute comic distraction to the Blue Things, I guess. All the while we wait for Might-As-Well-Be-A-Racist-Tornado Military Man to do something heinous or shifty-eyed science nerd to betray Jake. The runtime goes up and up and the 3-D glasses hurt more and more as you try in vain to see Zoe Saldana's Blue Tits. By the end, everything has built to this point at the end that makes all the previous two hours an excuse... an excuse to have a large, effects-driven battle between two easily indentifiable sides, the villains being the biggest, easiest targets in any film (besides Nazis): human (American) CEOs, human (American) military. These two groups will always fuck things up and no one will care when their ranks die horribly, because hey, they spend 24/7 being huge dicks.
So... this formulation is obvious because we have seen this story before, haven't we? Yeah... King Kong. Peter Jackson's King Kong. The millions of dollars spend on facial capture technology, fantastical locale created entirely on bluescreen, an unfocused script that goes all over the place, one-dimensional characters, environmentalist message brought to you by a giant hammer that doesn't stop hitting you in the face, and an overwhelming amount of praise by the audience. Good lord, both even have a director that was a whole lot better in the 90's! I'm onto something.
Slightly softening the blow of James Cameron dipping so low after being so high for so long is not revisiting Titanic, considered by some to be one of the most overrated films of the 90's, but revisiting another film of Cameron's that is most similar to Avatar: The Abyss.
Like Avatar, The Abyss showed a conflict between benign scientists, hardened marines acting irrationally, and a third party of unknown lifeforms caught in between. Its third act makes a large case for environmentalism and points a big accussing finger at the human race for being just s'darn destructive. And of course, like Avatar, its final theme-push is a big anti-human statement that says 'you are only best as you are about to die.' Both movies are also overly-long and masturbate to the point of chafing, but what The Abyss does in the details makes it marginally better than Avatar. For one, Michael Biehn's character isn't a racist tornado, meaning he isn't 'just an asshole.' The story thinks up a reason for his sudden irrationality quite nicely, and as the film goes on, it becomes clear that the only way to solve this matter is to ice his ass. GOOD. What's better is that his role is only an obstacle. The story is still all about first contact with an unknown lifeform, and Biehn's insanity is secondary to that goal, and doesn't disappear once he is gone. Overall it's a tighter narrative and a more effective story (except for the ending, which sucks).
I've been convinced recently that Avatar also needed a nuke, somewhere.
It sounds dismissive to bring up all this 'environmentalist agenda' stuff, like that's what is bothering me. It isn't. The best example I can think of is Princess Mononoke, a movie that couldn't be any more anti-industry, pro-nature if it tried. However, Princess Mononoke doesn't preach, it demonstrates a struggle between two sides that have their merits and their failings. Its villain is barely a villain, one whose goal is understandable and, depending on where your values lie, preferable. Mononoke has an environmentalist message, but it's one that I can live with, because it makes its case. Avatar insists that its own message is self-evident.
But try telling all this to someone who loved the movie. They won't listen, or they'll shrug and say something like, "I'm a girl, I like pretty things." The current hysteria is baffling (note: as of writing this, Avatar is #37 on IMDB's 250 highest ranked films; Mononoke is at #120), and is incredibly frustrating that I have to keep talking about this fucking thing, politely. It's all I can do to keep from grabbing people by the throat and yelling "The Emperor doesn't have clothes! LOOK!"
Because he doesn't, y'know.