In director James Cameron’s Terminator 2, the story demanded new film technology. The character of the T1000, made from a “polymimetic alloy,” was not possible as a special effect until Cameron made it happen on his previous film The Abyss.
In Avatar it’s not that the story demands a titanic budget and new visual effects, it’s that the story is an excuse to play with a titanic budget and new visual effects.
Cameron’s story, which he wrote fifteen years ago, is as old as history. An advanced civilization shows up among a more primitive indigenous culture to take their resources. A new arrival falls in love with one of the indigenous women and has to decide where his loyalties lie.
The new arrivals can’t just go among the indigenous people, who are twice as tall as humans, reclusive, and able to breathe the poisonous atmosphere. So anthropologists (including Sigourney Weaver’s character) cross human DNA with alien DNA, grow a soulless alien body (an avatar) in a vat, and then transfer their consciousness temporarily into the avatar. Though it gives the movie its name, this complex process becomes ever more irrelevant as the story progresses: Jake the human (Sam Worthington), through his avatar, falls in love with Neytiri the alien (Zoe Saldana). Since their physical love remains at the PG level, they might as well have just fallen in love directly.
That well-worn story is not the point of this expensive visual extravaganza anyway. Cameron instead focuses on creating a detailed forest-world and fluid, realistically textured aliens to inhabit it. The film does look very good. It’s convincingly real, with some appealing flourishes. The alien people are carefully modeled after the actors who portray them, then elongated, turned blue, and appended with a tail. But the story and the world lack the insight and originality that would have made Avatar another great James Cameron milestone.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
On planet Pandora, in addition to the humanoids, there are dog-oids, horse-oids, jellyfish-oids, rhinoceros-oids, lemur-oids, and dragons. The movie introduces a whole new alien language, but is content to add two extra legs to Earth fauna and call it good. The six-legged vertebrates like the horses and dragons breathe through holes in their chests. Yet the humanoids, who only have 4 limbs, apparently breathe through their mouths. Now there’s potential for an insightful and original story.
Maybe on Pandora the humanoids didn’t evolve from the lemurs. Maybe they were put there by God(oid). Maybe they colonized Pandora from another solar system, making the planet akin to Hawaii, which was colonized twice. That might throw the moral crimes of the second wave of colonists into stark contrast with the first wave. But I don’t think Cameron thought of all that when he made his men different from his monkeys. Cameron is selling the Noble Savage philosophy, and I don’t think his world-building goes much deeper than that.
Eventually, I found myself enjoying the experience of watching a James Cameron adventure movie. I’m not a macho guy, but I do like Cameron’s taste in military hardware. The mission to Pandora included anthropologists, sure, but there is a strong military presence as well, led by a besuited prick played by Giovanni Ribisi (think Paul Reiser in Aliens).
I love the walking robots (“AMP suits”), a combination of the AT-ATs from Star Wars and Sigourney Weaver’s loader suit in Aliens. They’re man-made avatars not unlike the meat puppets the scientists use (which seems like another missed opportunity for some interesting depth). They can jump from helicopters without taking any damage, fight off the indigenous megafauna, and wield gigantic terrifying knives and guns.
The helicopters are just advanced enough to look cool but not so advanced that they’re pure fantasy. They feel like they’re made of steel and olive drab paint, not bits and pixels. The gruff colonel (Stephen Lang, Gods and Generals) who oversees all the military forays, stands in the cockpit sipping his coffee, gritting his teeth, and probably enjoying the smell of napalm in the morning. And when the two civilizations collide the destruction is on a grand and very cinematic scale.
There’s one piece of hardware I’m not sure about: I think the movie would have fared just as well without the 3-D glasses. The glasses make the movie dark. Roger Ebert says his screening was bright enough, but that doesn’t mean your theater will get it right. When I peeked at the screen without my glasses, the picture was much clearer and cleaner, and the cinematography was better. A good photographer chooses not just what to include in the frame, but how to arrange the elements. When you’re immersed in the 3-D world, you lose track of the edges of the screen and the sense of deliberate arrangement. You don’t even miss it, necessarily, but it’s gone.