AVATAR (2009) d: James Cameron
One of my favorite directors (both as a fan and as a filmmaker) has always been James Cameron. Since I first saw 'The Terminator' back in 1985 I was completely impressed with the talent this guy had and followed him through today with his latest film 'Avatar'. Having not made a (narrative) film since 1997's 'Titanic' it has been a long wait. Many people have tried to do the kind of spectacular effects driven storytelling that Cameron can do but very few can. He is someone who knows how to use visual effects to tell his story without letting the visual effect tell the story. He is first a master storyteller and has always pushed the boundary of the effects business. It's why his films stand the test of time. At the end of the day the story remains. While the liquid metal of the T-1000 from 'Terminator 2' isn't as jaw dropping as it was back in 1991 the film still holds up because the story is just so amazing. Having watched the first 'Terminator' just a few weeks ago (blog post here) I can tell you it still holds up so well and still inspires me over 25 years later.
Now we have 'Avatar' his latest film and sadly to say, for the first time, I have mixed feelings. You have to understand I even like his first directing job film 'Piranha II The Spawning'. Unfortunately 'Avatar' is more akin to the films we've been getting waiting for Cameron to make another film rather than a James Cameron film.
The film tells the story of Jake (Sam Worthington) who is a Marine paralyzed from the waist down. His twin brother was part of an experiment where they take the consciousness of a person and place it into the body of a Na'vi. An avatar if you will. The point was to, at first, study them as is evident by the scientist who created it played by Sigourney Weaver. Since the twin brother has died they decide to use Jake as the fill in. Afterall, a lot of money is behind it. Not only the research to get it to this point but also the money to be gained from a rare mineral that is on the planet Pandora where the Na'vi live. The evil corporate guy (played by the usually fantastic Giovanni Ribisi) is just that. He may have had a name but it doesn't matter. He's the evil corporate guy. Plus we have the evil Marine guy (played by the also usually fantastic Stephen Lang). The corporate guy wants this mineral (I think it's a mineral) at any cost because it's worth a lot of money back on earth. The Marine wants to, in essence, just take out the Na'vi.
I'm being a bit flippant here mainly because these two from the moment they're on screen are exactly that. The evil corporate guy should have been rubbing his hands together while describing how much he wants this mineral thing. About as cliche as it gets. I mean really bad. He almost comes across as stupid which to get that powerful in a corporation (and at that young an age) requires some smarts. Even if all you want to do is make a lot more money even if it means wiping out an alien species. Cameron did this character ten times better in 'Aliens' with the character of Burke (played by Paul Reiser). He was smarmy and had something to hide and gain at the expense of others but his turn was still a bit surprising so we do hope he gets what's coming to him. Here the character is just not even close to being original. It's basically a stereotype of a stereotype. Stephen Lang gives a little more to his evil Marine early on before he turns into the typical military "let's just kill everything" cliche.
The Na'vi are these beings that live on this planet where this mineral is. They're basically Native Americans. Not like Native Americans. They are. Just because they're twice as tall as we are and all blue doesn't mean it's still not there. The way they act, react to things, and even talk. Even they're language sounds like it came out of 'Dances With Wolves'. Which is pretty much what this film is.
The film starts out pretty original. I was liking the film despite the cliche of the evil corporate guy (I mean the first shot of him is he's playing golf with one of those office golf things ... yeah). Once they land on Pandora is sort of where the film starts to lose interest. Naturally there are crazy animals everywhere and there is some encounters and chases with creatures. Then we're introduced to Neytiri who is a female (and daughter of the chief of the tribe) Na'vi. She saves Jake from some dog like creatures. Which I found a bit disturbing. The creatures were a little too much like dogs so as they were getting beaten and stabbed and the familiar sounds of dogs whimpering in pain was a bit much for me. She senses something special about Jake and brings him back to the tribe. Now his orders (by the evil Marine and the evil corporate guy) are to see if he can, over the course of three months, convince them to relocate while they come in and take this mineral. They didn't tell them they can build casinos though. Maybe that's in the director's cut. The problem is we've seen this story before. The discovering a different culture story which at first is either so different or possibly an enemy but then the discovery leads to an understanding and we've all learned something about each other. It's not that we've seen it before it's that we've seen it before and done much better. 'Dances With Wolves', 'Witness', 'The Last Samurai'. Those are off the top of my head. There is nothing different about the story. There is even the warrior Na'vi who doesn't like Jake but eventually respects him when the crap hits the fan. Just like in all of the other ones. I hate to say this but just like the evil guys the story is cliche. Like I said, it doesn't start off that way but it ends that way.
Another thing missing is the sense of wonder. We're taken to this planet with these beings, all kinds of creatures, and exotic plant life but it doesn't make you really go "wow". You just look at it. When the characters jump on these giant bird like creatures and ride them through the air there was never a sense of amazement. Remember the first time you saw the dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park'? Hell, even the Cantina scene in 'Star Wars'? None of that is here. It looks great technically but there is no sense of wonderment.
I won't go crazy with this but it's worth mentioning. One thing is at the very start of the film we are flying over a misty forest. The voice over of Jake says,"I have dreams where I'm flying." Or at least something very close to that. Now later in the film when Jake gets on one of those birds and is flying through the air there was never that moment where he realizes he is flying like in his dream. Seemed kind of odd then to open the movie like that. I wanted that little moment. That might be why there is no wonder in the film because our characters never feel it
One big thing that I think really went a little too far. As if the relocation of the tribes and the deforestation and the stealing of natural resources from others (yes, I get it!!) wasn't enough there is a bizarre take on 9/11 where the very large sacred tree of the Na'vi is attacked and it eventually falls over and leaves ashes over everything. Very reminiscent of the World Trade Center coming down. This was just disturbing. Not in the way that was intended either. It felt more like exploitation. As it was happening I was thinking that I was reading too much into it. Maybe I am but I don't think so. Not cool.
Is 'Avatar' a bad film? No. I think seeing the film in 3-D, especially in IMAX, will make it an interesting experience for people. Maybe the 'Dances With Wolves' story doesn't bother you. Some stories I can watch over and over again in different ways. The you killed my brother/sister/cousin/wife revenge story will always work for me. So this kind of story may work for you. Some of the scenery is pretty amazing. The environments looks incredible. Unfortunately I was admiring them from a technical standpoint not from the wonder or awe standpoint. Cameron knows how to do action. You know what is going on and are never confused which I wish more filmmakers would follow. Shaky cam does not make action good. Follow Cameron's lead on this. As for the film on a whole though, for me, it just felt like a big cliche and while technically it's told well I didn't walk away with anything new nor did I feel like I was taken off to a distant world. At least not one that sparked that sense of wonder in me.
I love you James Cameron but I don't think I'll be seeing this again. However, I will be first in line for your next film. I know you're still a great storyteller with a lot more stories in you. You don't need to tell the ones others already have.