At a cost of around $500 million to make, Avatar is going to have to gross somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion dollars in order to break even. What do you get for all this money? Well, at the risk of my life being taken by angry fanboys (who’ve already pushed the thing to the level of “25th greatest movie ever made” on the IMDb at this writing), I’d say you get the longest, most expensive B picture ever made. While I liked the film better than I’d expected to, I was often bored and found myself marking time while waiting for the not only predictable, but telegraphed plot points to fall into place.
However, as pure technical spectacle, Avatar is pretty impressive most of the time. I didn’t find it particularly groundbreaking, which was a little disappointing, because I felt at first that it might be. The very opening scenes, with their almost offhand use of amazing effects, generated some of the sense of awe I felt in 1968 when I first saw 2001. Even the dime-store-level hardboiled narration didn’t dispel that sense, but the film couldn’t keep it up once its plot truly set in.
What you have is a standard-issue “noble savage” tale, trumpeting the superiority of more primitive cultures over that of civilization—and ironically using the most sophisticated technology that civilization can provide and money can buy to convey that far-from-fresh message. It’s the old saw about a man who attains wisdom by joining up with a “simpler” and “more pure” people and learning their ways. Indeed, this man may be the fulfillment of the people’s own prophecies. (I kept hoping someone would say that all this could be because our hero is the “Kwisatz Haderach.”) The fact that the man is a paraplegic ex-Marine (Sam Worthington)—who interacts with the blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall, vaguely simian cat people through a scientifically engineered avatar—is just flashy window dressing.
Thematically, Avatar is supposed to be important and rather daring as a condemnation of American military imperialism. But Cameron has hedged his bets by making the villains a greedy corporation out to displace the indigenous people of Pandora in order to secure a large deposit of the preposterously named mineral “unobtainium.” And their army is clearly identified as made up of mercenaries. What he ends up with is the warmed-over anti-corporate villainy of his Aliens (1986).
As action filmmaking, Avatar is as close to flawless as you’re likely to get. Cameron stages coherent action scenes—even if they often go on too long—and he does them for maximum excitement. It’s also noteworthy that he takes it all very seriously. Apart from a few one-liners and having Sigourney Weaver’s avatar sport a Ripley-styled wife-beater, the film has none of the camp of a Star Wars picture or the tasteless humor of a Michael Bay excess-a-thon. That in itself is refreshing.
And yes, the movie has a distinctive look that’s very striking—sort of like a Heavy Metal comic done in Maxfield Parrish colors and looked at under a black light in a head shop. But ultimately, it struck me as overbalancing the thin story line. This is an effects- and design-heavy movie that’s clearly the work of a first-rate technician, but whether it’s the work of a first-rate filmmaker is another matter. Personally, I was much more impressed with Neil Blomkamp’s similarly themed District 9.
Does Avatar signal the death of movies as we know them, as all the hype and a good many critics suggest? I seriously doubt it—not in the least because, technology to one side, it very much is movies as we know them. Will it change the way movies are made? My guess is—assuming that it’s the success it’s positioned to be—that it may change the way a certain type of movie is made, but not much else. Time will tell. Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.