Avatar: One Man's Indifference
Avatar has been described as a lot of different things. The 20th Century Fox marketing department told us it was THE BIGGEST MOVIE EVER, even before this was actually true, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy as hundreds of thousands of people flocked to cinemas to see if it was true. Detractors have labelled it “Smurfahontas”, “Ferngully in space”, or simply “derivative pap”. Personally, I called it “meh”, a statement reflective of my complete disinterest in the movie as a whole: as the rest of Britain was jumping up and down in excitement over the trailers and the press releases, I didn’t see anything that induced me to watch the film, which was odd for a James Cameron flick – I’d even watched Titanic for its own merits, and not Kate Winslet’s breasts. And that’s where things should have stayed: Fox released a movie that I had no interest in, and life goes on. Except Fox wouldn’t let it lie.
Shortly after I’d first seen the Avatar trailer, the marketing machine stepped into overdrive, slapping posters and leaflets over every available surface, throwing ads into every available publication and inserting references into TV shows produced by the Fox network – most notably Bones, who dedicated an entire subplot (not-so-ironically featuring show regular and Avatar bit-player Joel David Moore) to characters trying to obtain tickets for the first screening at their local cinema, placing upon it the same importance, jubilation and hysteria as The Phantom Menace back in the day. The reason for this was painfully obvious: Avatar was (and probably still is) the most expensive movie ever made, and the last great hope for 3D cinema, designed to prove that 3D wasn’t just a gimmick for kids’ movies and horror flicks designed to extract more money out of parents and horny teenagers. Put simply, Avatar could not afford to fail: failure would have meant the ruination of 3D, the downward trajectory of James Cameron’s box office clout, and a huge (potentially unrecoverable) hole in the finances of 20th Century Fox.
It was around this time that my apathy transformed into outright anger and this, added to my near-terminal loathing for 3D cinema, resulted in an outright refusal to contribute a single penny towards Avatar’s success. I wouldn’t refuse to see the film at all – only an idiot judges a movie without watching it first – but I wouldn’t pay for the privilege. This ruled out a cinema viewing, DVD rental, an Xbox download or LoveFilm and, given my circle of friends’ mutual disgust over the film as a whole, it seemed as if I would be spared a viewing. I was wrong. On September 21st this year I received an email from one Paul Currie, who had heard my various rants and had spotted the flaw in an otherwise damned fine plan: if he were to send me a copy of Avatar – gratis, free, for nothing – along with a polite request for a review, I’d have no choice but to watch it. Now, I could have palmed this off on to a colleague, but I think we all know by now how stupid I am when it comes to challenges from community members. A short while later, I received a shiny Blu-ray copy of the movie in the post. Thank you, Paul. Thank you all the way to hell.
James Cameron’s been a funny fella of late, fixating on things like the Titanic or the ocean itself, and constructing movies around them almost like a love letter, allowing the characters and plot to fall by the wayside. The same is true with Avatar. The true focus of the film is Pandora itself: its landscape, its biology and its history are all lushly painted in intricate detail, and Cameron lingers lovingly over every single item. The viewer learns more about the Na’vi in the first hour of its butt-numbing 162 minutes then it learns about humanity over the course of the entire film. Remember the James Cameron who managed to paint a vivid picture of future Earth with a single corporate-set scene and a handful of dialogue and costuming choices in Aliens? You won’t find him here. Not because Cameron has lost his touch, or that he’s changed his working method, but because when he was making Aliens humanity was the focus of his story. With Avatar he’s almost disgusted with us and therefore couldn’t care less about how we got where we are, just that we’re there, ready to play the villain. If you’re hoping for tight plotting, fully fleshed-out characters and a universe that you can believe in, forget it. Your job is to gawp at the pretty visuals and then tell everyone how amazing Pandora looks, so they’ll go and watch the movie too.
I must admit, it really does look pretty. Even without the “benefits” of 3D which I only remembered was missing about halfway through. This just goes to prove how “essential” it was to the film’s substance. It’s a breathtaking view, especially in high definition. Unfortunately the visuals are just about the only truly inspiring thing about Avatar, and after a while the over-saturation means that you’re almost numb to them. The plot is uninspired; “Ferngully in space” is an almost completely accurate description, and at least Ferngully had the benefit of both Robin Williams and the incomparable Tim Curry. Its world doesn’t make sense even within its own context, why can the Na’vi interface with every other animal or plant on the planet? What evolutionary purpose would that serve? Why does a giant battle mech carry a hunting knife? The performances are stilted; Sam Worthington continues to struggle with an American accent, and does little to improve on a bland script; Zoe Saldana borders racism and self-ridicule; Sigourney Weaver seems to be acting in another film altogether (and a better one – somebody cast this woman as a bitch more often!); Giovanni Ribisi is Carter Burke’s direct descendant; Stephen Lang is hammier than William Shatner at a delicatessen; and Joel Moore is basically playing his character from Bones, only slightly more cheerful. And on top of this, the film practically screams an ecological message.
Apparently a man who has burned though $237 million in development costs and generated more unwanted print ads and media coverage than any film-maker in history feels that he’s in a perfect position to lecture the cinema-going public on what we’re doing to the planet. Avatar yells its ecological agenda from the rooftops, yet embarrassingly is not self-aware on this front; Cameron genuinely seems to believe that he’s being subtle with his preaching, and if there’s one thing that people seeking entertainment despise, it’s being lectured. If you want to be educated, you go to watch a documentary (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, for example, enjoyed a successful cinematic release AND manages to walk the fine line between information and entertainment), but if you’re sitting down to a flick advertised as a space opera and made by the guy behind Aliens and The Terminator? Odds are you’re in the mood for escapism, not being told off by someone infinitely better off than you.
I'll stick with my original, pre-hysteria assessment of Avatar: “meh”. Its visuals may be jaw-droppingly gorgeous (seriously, this is the best CG I’ve seen in a very long time, especially in an almost entirely-CG movie), but its plot is predictable, trite and cribbed from a dozen different sources, its human characters are drab and two-dimensional, its performances are insipid at best and dreary at worst, and the whole thing is about an hour too long. It’s not entirely terrible to sit through – at worst you might get bored – but there are far, far more productive and entertaining uses of 162 minutes than numbing your backside with Avatar.
There you are, Paul. I hope you’re satisfied.