Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, in 'Avatar'

Dir. James Cameron
(2009, PG-13, 162 min)
★ ★ ½

Leaving James Cameron’s science-fiction epic, I didn’t think it was possible to reconcile its parts into a single review. So I wrote two.

Feast for the Eyes. You could cover your ears and enjoy Avatar as two-and-a-half hours of moving artwork. Director James Cameron twelve years ago overcame stubborn skepticism over a previous budget-busting passion project, Titanic, which broke box office and awards records; now he is poised to break both again.

Set on the planet Pandora in the year 2154, it opens with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine sent on a science mission in the place of his deceased twin brother. He doesn’t know anything about the world or its inhabitants, but he has the DNA needed to interface with his brother’s “avatar,” a living doll of sorts that allows the human researchers to interact with the natives.

The indigenous people are the Na’vi. They’re much larger than humans, but lithe and graceful in their movements, and their faces are rendered with great expressiveness. They live in an ecosystem of spectacular detail. Jellyfish-like seeds called woodsprites float through the air; seemingly intelligent, they purposefully choose on whom or what they land. Flying dragons called Leonoptheryx are brilliantly colored and have vividly animated wings with bat-like texture. Close-ups show us precise muscle movement and respiration. Cameron and his expert production design and visual effects teams have made Pandora a complete, lived-in world.

Until now, I never paid the premium to see a film in 3D. It has always seemed like little more than an excuse for self-conscious “Gotcha!” effects where things fly at the audience for no other reason than to use the 3D. In 2007, a friend gave me an IMAX ticket for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the climactic battle was in 3D. I squinted at the action, wishing I could trade in that third dimension for free popcorn or a soft drink. I can’t say how the 3D Avatar compares to the flatter version, but I can say it doesn’t hurt; the world doesn’t fly at you (no ostentatious arrows sailing towards the camera). It looks deeper.

Famine for the Brain. If you close your eyes, you would mistake Avatar for a Saturday morning cartoon. Never would you guess that writer James Cameron would employ such remarkable effects in the service of a story so creatively malnourished it had to crib from Fern Gully and Disney’s Pocahontas.

The film takes itself very, very seriously, which makes its simple-mindedness all the more glaring. It reduces human nature to two caricatured types. There are the good guys, who study Pandora and wish to protect its natural beauty. They include Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who hates knuckle-dragging jarheads who shoot first and ask questions later, and Sully, who is reformed, as all rakish heroes must be, by the love of a good woman: Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). And then there are the bad guys, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is a special kind of ridiculous. His code name is “Papa Dragon,” and he speaks the following dialogue without any sense of irony:

  • “If there is a hell you might wanna go there for some R&R after a tour on Pandora.”
  • “Thanks Jake, I’m gettin’ all emotional, might just give you a big wet kiss!”
  • “Out there, beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.”

Quaritch works for the administrator of a mining operation on Pandora, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the rich unobtanium deposits under the Na’vi settlement. Unobtanium. Seriously, that’s what it’s called. We’re told it’s worth $20 million a kilogram, but we’re not told what it is, what it does, or why the human race needs it. It’s a MacGuffin, and not a very good one; it drives a feeble critique of humanity as a race of eco-raping barbarians that is too simplistic to be convincing and cynical to the point of self-righteousness.

Only two summers ago did WALL-E show us, with tremendous visual poetry, its garbage-pile skyscrapers, yet all Cameron has to offer is a lot of nature-spirit-Gaia-energy claptrap about the interconnectedness of all living things. A romantic notion, and perhaps fodder for a fine film, but this screenplay is much too shallow for that.

Summation. Avatar is worth seeing just to see it, but as the hours passed and the resplendent imagery drifted from memory, I was more greatly struck by the film’s deficiency of storytelling. Why was a film so exquisitely designed written so unimaginatively? It celebrates conservation, but wastes an opportunity.