Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a ginormous corporation wants to strip a lush, beautiful (but primitive) environment of all of its natural resources, and the people who live there are none too happy about it. Or this one: a military man finds himself spending time with a beautiful (but primitive) civilization, falls in love with a woman from said civilization and eventually chooses to side with them against his own people. Add those two stories together and stir in quarter of a billion dollars of groundbreaking special effects, and you’ve got James Cameron’s Avatar.
Somewhere out in space sometime in the future, an Earth colony on the lush-and-beautiful-but-primitive planet Pandora works on mining all of the â€œunobtaniumâ€ from the planet.1 Of course, Pandora is populated by giant blue, peaceful, nature-worshipping beings called the Na’vi, and the Na’vi have to be dealt with before this massive military-industrial stripmining can occur. So the corporation hires Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to infiltrate the Na’vi and convince them to leave the giant tree where they’ve lived for generations so that they can blow it right the hell up. To do this, they transfer Jake’s consciousness into a genetically-engineered human-Na’vi hybrid, which works out well for Jake since his human body is paralyzed from the waist down. There’s the scientist who becomes Jake’s friend (Sigourney Weaver) and the Na’vi Jake falls in love with (the CGI likeness of Zoe Saldana) and the weak corporate executive (Giovanni Ribisi) and the warmongering colonel (Stephen Lang) and the wise old native mentors (the CGI likenesses of Wes Studi and CCH Pounder)…and if you’ve ever seen another movie ever, you can probably figure out the rest.
Yes, the story is simplistic and derivative of any number of other â€œwhite man goes nativeâ€ stories. But really, that’s utterly beside the point: Cameron wanted a story and structure on which to hang his special effects, so he cribbed together pieces from other sources to suit his needs. You’re not going to convince me that this was “a story he’d always wanted to tell” when it’s been told a dozen times over. Cameron’s a smart enough filmmaker to know that he couldn’t get away with no story — you’re not going to keep an audience engaged for two-and-a-half hours and encourage repeated viewers if all you’ve got is your special effects. He knew that a hackneyed story was better than none at all.
The characters were fine, I guess — while you can have sparklingly original characters in a trite story, Cameron chose not to go that route; taking the time to develop characters would have taken time away from developing his special effects. But stock characters or no, the actors played their parts well, even if these weren’t the sorts of roles which push one’s acting abilities to the edge. It’s worth noting, though, that Cameron does know how to work with his actors, how to get convincing performances out of them, and I think ultimately that’s one of the biggest separators between Avatar and the most recent Star Wars movies: George Lucas took fantastic actors and directed them to completely lifeless performances in his CGI-fests. Cameron might have been more interested in the CGI, but still had some viable humans in there, too. Even if Cameron’s directorial strategy was simply to hire talented actors and get the hell out of their way, that’s a serious improvement over Lucas’s techniques (whatever the hell they may be).
Half of the acting in the movie, however, is done through motion-captured big blue not-quite-human aliens, and it’s difficult ever to get to that point where you don’t realize you’re watching CGI — it’s not quite â€œuncanny valleyâ€-esque, but it’s not as natural-seeming as, say, the Gollum effects in Lord of the Rings, either. Somewhat ironically, especially given what I said above about the acting being generally acceptable: the times the CGI-ness was most painful was during the times when Cameron attempted to have his giant Smurfs actually emote (most notably when once Na’vi wails and weeps over the death of another).
Avatar isn’t a great movie, no, but for all of it’s flaws it’s still a good movie. Cameron succeeded in doing exactly what I imagine he was attempting to do: he made an entertaining with absolutely stellar special effects. And it certainly affected my eight-year-old: she became truly distraught at some of the events of the movie, and has been begging me to let her watch it again. (She has pronounced it â€œthe best movie everâ€; she and I clearly need to have a talk and see more movies.) The simplistic story and overwrought environmental message certainly didn’t drag down her experience, and maybe even enhanced it — maybe what Cameron has made here is a gloriously violent (though bloodless) kids’ movie.
Avatar may not have revolutionized filmic storytelling, but in its own way it revolutionized filmmaking, and Cameron deserves a lot of credit for that. The movie was nominated for nine Oscars (including Best Picture) and won three: Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, and all three awards were merited. I know plenty of people were angry or confused about the fact that Avatar was nominated for Best Picture — I even just said in the last paragraph that it’s a good but not great movie. But that nomination was awarded more for the â€œholy hell, Jim Cameron, look what you managed to pull offâ€ factor than anything else. It’s much the same reason The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King scored so many nominations…but the fact that Return of the King was a much better film explains why that one won Best Picture.
Cameron’s use of the term “unobtanium” is either a big joke or proof of laziness or disinterest in the storytelling. I’m honestly not sure which it is. ↩