James Cameron dances with blue cat/monkeys: “Avatar”

December 20, 2009

Watching Avatar in 3D is to be immersed in a completely alien and unique world. The reported 300-500 million that James Cameron blew on it is all right up there onscreen, mostly in form of the Na’vi—tall blue creatures with catlike faces and monkey-like tails. That these are our main characters and that they are rendered as realistically as any of the flesh and blood actors opposite them is a testament to the decade-plus that Cameron spent pioneering the technology he needed to bring his vision to life. Look past the 3D and what you basically have is The Last Samurai in outer space, only if Tom Cruise and Koyuki were blue cat/monkeys who looked deep into each others’ eyes and solemnly intone “I see you.” Yeah, it’s incredibly silly. But damn it, it’s expensive and realistic-looking silliness. And that’s sort of the problem with the movie.

Avatar is James Cameron’s take on the venerable sub-genre of “going native” movies—Dances With Wolves, Farewell to the King, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and the like. If you have even a passing awareness of any of these movies, you pretty much know how Avatar is going to play out, but all the same I’m not going to really spoil anything here that hasn’t already been spoiled in the marketing campaign that has been bludgeoning you for the past several months and, at this point, is probably holding your family members hostage until you cough up a ticket stub.

The film begins with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, arriving on the trippy planet (moon? It looks like a moon) of Pandora, where humans are trying to mine a crucial substance called (sigh) “Unobtainium.” Unfortunately, Pandora is inhabited by the aforementioned blue cat/monkeys called the Na’vi who live in primitive idyll where they commune with all of nature a lot. The human contingent on Pandora is basically split. On one side you have the scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who created genetically-engineered  Na’vi bodies that can be controlled remotely in an effort to go among them and build schools and bring medicine and generally win hearts and minds. On the other side you have the eeevil military/industrial complex that just want to mine the unobtainium and don’t much care about anything else. The corporate side is personified by Giovanni Ribisi’s “Company lackey” character (we can tell he’s a corporate stooge because he wears a tie whereas no one else wears a tie in the movie…which begs the question, why does he bother wearing a tie?).

The military side is led by Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch may or may not be an active-duty Marine—there’s a throwaway line that indicates these people might be soldiers-turned- mercenaries, but I suspect that’s a bid not to alienate all the “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker-sporting members of the audience. Whatever Quaritch’s duty status, it’s clear he hates scientists, diplomacy, soft power, nation building, ice cream, kittens, and pretty much anything else that doesn’t involve the decimation of the Na’vi. Guess who runs rampant in the movie’s last third? Uh-huh.

So, Sully had a twin brother who was a scientist and fitted for a Na’vi avatar before he was murdered, and the scientists—despite regarding the Marine with the kind of loathing generally reserved for a sewer rat you discover munching on your wedding cake—send him in to help win Na’vi hearts and minds. Quaritch, however, appeals to his anti-intellectual Marine side and asks him to do recon on the Na’vi. You know, to make the genocide easier.

Okay, and yadda yadda yadda, glowing forest, rat/dog/monsters, skip ahead a bit, and pretty soon Sully is tentatively accepted into a clan of Na’vi and mentored by the chief’s daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, sexy even as a blue cat/monkey). Pretty soon Sully and Neytiri are falling in love, and after three months, he is accepted as a member of the clan (wait? Three months?!? C’mon, to took a lot longer than that to get my badge and gun. Hell, they didn’t even let me play with the machine guns after three months!) Anyway, Sully starts feeling really bad about betraying the Na’vi, (mainly because Neytiri is so hot) and tries to stop the company, but…well, you can imagine how that goes. In the end, Quaritch pretty much takes command of the mission and decides to implement a scorched-Pandora policy. Poor Sully—abandoned by the company for being a traitor, and outcast by the Na’vi for…well, providing the seeds of their extinction, really—must do a whole Lawrence of Arabia thing and bring the masses of Na’vi together to fight the company and pretty much stomp human ass, so the Na’vi can continue to be a peaceable,  gentle people. It’s only one of many contradictions in the movie.

As I mentioned earlier, this is the movie that forced Cameron’s long hiatus from (commercial) filmmaking as he worked on pioneering the technology necessary to make this movie. I mean, it wasn’t the story that he’s been meticulously crafting for 12 years, that’s for goddamn sure. And that’s really the problem with this movie. Cameron makes pulp movies, but typically he makes very good pulp movies. He focuses fairly tightly on the action and the effects and produces a classic, well-crafted thrill ride. You don’t necessarily feel mentally engaged after a Cameron movie, but you never feel empty. Unfortunately, with this film, Cameron has let a lot more of his personal and political views bleed into the story, and, well, he’s not really a deep thinker.

The Na’vi are an all-purpose stand-in for the Native Americans or native Polynesians or whatever native folk that privileged Westerners like to idealize as being one with nature. The humans are mostly craven, materialistic, and brutal. They’ve supposedly destroyed the environment of Earth (“they killed their Mother,” Sully declares at one point), and have little regard for that on Pandora, either. They are mindless, selfish consumers (and while you’re at it, would you mind terribly picking up a copy of the Avatar computer game? And books? And a couple of the action figures? Thanks.)

Cameron has never been a great screenwriter, but he’s had better days than this. We learn of the company’s mission on Pandora when Ribisi holds up a chunk of unobtainium and explains, “This is the reason we’re here. Because this stuff goes for [some crazy price]…” Oh, hey, thanks Giovanni, Lord of Exposition. That he tells Weaver’s Grace—someone who clearly knows why they’re on Pandora since she’s spent years pioneering avatar science for just this mission—makes the scene that much more cringe-worthy. Completely absent is the easy banter of Aliens, or even the pared down dialogue of Terminator. Instead we get the Na’vi exhortation, “I see you!”

But Cameron’s lackluster scripts are generally salvaged by the talents of his actors—give the man this much: he knows who best delivers his dialogue. And this is where Avatar has an enormous hole in its center. Worthington simply can’t carry the movie. He looks the part just fine (even if we accept the depressing fact that those dumbass, pseudo Maori tattoos will still be in style 150 years from now), but delivers his lines like a slightly less charismatic Mark Whalberg (yes, such a thing is possible). Saldana is amazing in her use of body-language to make her motion-captured character come alive.  Weaver is a canny enough actress to let some maternal warmth bleed into her performance and fill in some of the cracks in Cameron’s characterization. Still, when the guy playing your charismatic leader is as blank as Worthington, your movie’s pretty much gutshot.

I don’t want to rag on Cameron too much, because at the end of the day, the guy knows how to press the audience’s joy button. Even, as in the case of Avatar, when he uses a cheap setup to provide a satisfyingly brutal comeuppance, you can’t help but get involved with the action on screen. It’s also refreshing, after this annus horribilis of Transformers 2, and Terminator: Salvation to see one of the authors of the summer blockbuster show the pretenders to the throne how it’s done. Cameron’s action sequences are never less than gripping (he’s one of the few directors who genuinely makes me fidget and squirm in my seat during the exciting parts), yet they’re always coherent and clean with a solid spatial sense.

I doubt very much Avatar will be a flop—Cameron doesn’t make flops—but it’s probably going to relegated to The Abyss or True Lies: solid films, but uninspiring. The technology Cameron ushers in with this film may or may not change the industry, but it couldn’t salvage this film. He may do well to take heed of another director who became so enamored of effects technology to the exclusion of all else: George Lucas. And if that doesn’t scare him straight, well, I’m out of brilliant ideas.


  1. Good review. I actually had no idea what the story was about before I saw the movie. Although I agree the story may be a little weak and the stereotypes a little overdone, overall I was really impressed with this movie. By the way, thanks for the recommendation on Blood: The last Vampire, that was a solid film.

    • Yeah, I was of two minds about this movie. James cameron doesn’t make bad movies, and when the action kicks in, this movie really engages you. I just felt that the story was too simplistic to support the weight opf the drama. Cameron is at his best when he’s dealing with simple premises (e.g. “Aliens”). Complicated premises kind of thwart him. He delivers great visuals and action sequences, but the further he strays from those, the more wobbly his movies get.

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