James Cameron directs Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang in the epic sci-fi adventure where a disabled marine enters the cloned body of an alien species in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the native population of Pandorra.
James Cameron only works big. Ever since The Terminator every single one of his films has been an event. Every one essential. I remember booking tickets, in advance (unheard of in 1997), to go see Titanic twice on the day of its release. Avatar, his only movie since, is the most financially successful movie ever. It contains a whole alien world and culture and biosphere realised. A traditional adventure story brimming with Cameron’s trademark warrior woman protagonist, technological boundary pushing, pure heart on his sleeve politics and IMAX scale weaponised destruction. The script is simple, once it gets a fuck ton of exposition out of the way, while the characterisation and “Oorah Marine” dialogue is lifted directly from previous blockbusters, many of them Cameron’s own. It is a bit too basic, a bit too unoriginal, a bit too self assured. It is the work of a director unfettered by budgetary concerns or studio notes. It has a draggingly baggy middle hour and a naive overriding spirit that exotic visual excess is enough to keep us engaged. The characters are too blank or repetitive to cover up this gaping flaw. Avatar, once the initial shock of its optical artistry has been spent, is too rudimentary and casual a story to fill its three hours. I was restless on my second cinema viewing in 2009 and this next, long delayed, revisit at home, saw me checking my phone frequently. Almost a decade later, with much of the film forgotten again, and there was very little to hold my attention aside from the spectacle. Now, there are three fantastic action set pieces; the taming of the sky dragons, the helicopter war among the floating mountain range and the final fight involving a mecha armoured Stephen Lang. His maniacal fanatic Colonel is one of the rare times the movie truly comes to life. He sneers, he’s scarred and he makes for a formidable antagonist in mindset and presence. But these bursts of excitement aside, Avatar is overly worthy and overly familiar. You see things you’ve never seen before but it is set dressing for a plot with very little hook. The hokey romance, the hippy dipping politicking, the industrial military conspiracies are basic. The only time Avatar explores a unique emotion is in the wonder Cameron imbues when his disabled protagonist enters an abled foreign body. We share the excitement of a man running barefoot again who had abandoned the experience. How do wheelchair users feel about these sequences? Does it deliver a rare moment of wish fulfilment? An intriguing fantasy Hollywood rarely explores because of its niche audience or potential bad taste? Cameron is too visionary a filmmaker to make wholly terrible or redundant movies and Avatar’s visual design achievements cannot be dismissed. But for entertainment purposes it is inessential. Ruining the King of the World’s perfect record. Maybe that is why it made unrepeatable amounts of cash at the multiplex. We all secretly knew this was a razzle dazzle that only works on the big screen, the viewer unjaded by return business. Like losing your virginity or life itself Avatar can and should only be experienced once.