Film review: Avatar

The buzz on the film Avatar was that it would “change the way films are made,” and that it would be as transformative an experience as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Perhaps that advance promotion was unfortunate, because James Cameron has made an entertaining popcorn movie that moves quickly and creates a beautiful vision of a forest world with its stunning CGI.  Unfortunately, it also uses stock characters and a plot that telegraphs every single punch, making it a fun amusement-park ride but not a terribly engaging story.

Let’s start with the best aspects of the film, and the best of its best is the CGI for the scenes on Pandora with the Na’vi, an indigenous race on a planet whose natural resources are coveted by “the Corporation,” an East India Trading Company for the 22nd century or so.  That plot line revolves around an element laughably called “Unobtanium,” but more on that in a moment.  The film was made using similar techniques employed by Lord of the Rings in animating Gollum, and by Beowulf in animating all of the characters.  Beowulf did a poor job of it, badly translating facial expressions and movements by the actors into its animation, making everyone in the film look wooden (except for Angelina Jolie, perhaps).  Avatar accomplishes what LOTR did and Beowulf could not.  The characters come alive, at least physically.

The scenery is lush and seemingly magical.  It is truly a character in its own right, and for a purpose.  The flying scenes with the Na’vi are spectacular … but in the manner of the world’s best video game.  Only in a scene at the climax does it seem realistic at all.  That doesn’t make it less enjoyable, but it’s hard to shake the World of Warcraft feel.  It’s about the same feel as The Mummy, which was also a good popcorn flick, but with far fewer pretensions at being something else.

All of that gets wasted to some degree on a plot that combines Dances with Wolves and Dune, with a dash of Return of the Jedi for a Luddite noble-savages-defeat-technology flavor.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gets to be Paul Atreides in this scenario, the outsider who becomes a messianic figure for the natives after mind-linking to an engineered body of a Na’vi.  The Corporation sends him to learn about the Na’vi so that they can convince the natives to let them rape their land.  Does he succeed, or does he lead a heroic revolt against his own greedy people who have “killed their own mother [Earth]”?  If you can’t answer that from the trailer, then this may be the first movie you’ve ever seen.

Conservatives have more or less primed themselves to hate this film because of the presumed anti-war politics of the movie.  It’s there — in fact, it’s unmistakable — but it’s not as bad as one might presume.  It mostly comes later in the movie, when the commander of a military base attempts to rally the humans in response to what he calls “terrorism,” talks of making a “pre-emptive strike,” and promises a “shock and awe” effort.  All of that happens within about a five-minute burst.  As for the anti-business Corporation plot line, that’s a retread of Aliens, which Cameron wrote and in which Sigourney Weaver also starred.

The real flaw in this film is its predictability.  Except for loud noises and some creative imagining of animal and plant life, nothing is terribly surprising in this movie.  It tells no new tales or offers any lessons that haven’t already come out of Screenwriting 101.  The cast does a very good job with this limited material, which makes it entertaining but hardly a deep intellectual exercise.  The pace was good but the film was too long at 2 1/2 hours.  I enjoyed it, but at best would give it a 7 on a scale of 10.

Addendum: Just to make sure I had a realistic take on the film, I went with the Mathemagician to see it, whose perspective on politics differs from mine.  We both largely concurred that it was entertaining, but very predictable.

Update: Gabriel Malor agrees almost entirely, and mentions one point I’d forgotten.  People have presumed that the film is anti-military, but it’s actually more anti-mercenary.  The soldiers in the film are employees of the Corporation, not a military unit.  That gets explained in the beginning, but not terribly well.  For mercenaries, they certainly have some very expensive machinery.