Directed by: James Cameron || Produced by: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Screenplay by: James Cameron || Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao
Music by: James Horner || Cinematography: Mauro Fiore || Editing by: James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 162 minutes
From humble beginnings as the special FX director of Piranha 2: The Spawning (the best movie every with flying piranhas, 1981), to a full-fledged writer-director of the measly budgeted sci-fi classic, The Terminator (1984), which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, to the fan-favorite, critically hailed Aliens (1986), which made Sigourney into a star and has influenced every single First Person Shooter video-game ever made, to the worldwide teenage heartthrob story of Titanic (1997) that became one of the all-time box office smashes and garnered 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director… and finally, to 2009 with his writing and directing of Avatar, which revolutionized 3D special FX, James Cameron is, for all intents and purposes, the “King of the Filmmaking World, and the Box Office.”
With that said, simply being King of the World does not in any way entail that Cameron is the best filmmaker in the world, or that everything the guy has made throughout his career is pure gold. Cameron has shown that nowadays, when push comes to shove, he cares more about box office dollars and showing off than he does about writing and directing original stories with notable artistic merit.
Admittedly, the guy has always had much more well rounded talent and filmmaking skill than, say, George Lucas, who is essentially a studio executive now. Cameron also has passion for human history, natural history, the ocean, biodiversity, and things of that nature, and he invests that scientific curiosity and dedication into his work. With his latest two ventures, however, especially 2009’s Avatar, it seems that Cameron has abandoned the pursuit of telling interesting stories with human characters in favor of mainstream-friendly romances surrounded by black-and-white, overly simplistic tragedies that guarantee box office dominance in order to scratch the director’s already vast ego.
The problem is not that Avatar is not original, and that this type of story structure has been done countless times before (e.g. Pocahontas , Dances with Wolves , The Last Samurai , etc.), but rather that James Cameron’s newest movie paints its characters as one-dimensional stereotypes that don’t feel like real people, but rather as laughable, simple-minded caricatures. My beef with Avatar is that every aspect of its narrative and the vast majority of its characters are stereotypical in the worst way possible. This stems from the comical juxtaposition of the film’s two opposing forces: The technologically advanced, imperialistic, destructive human forces and the primitive, peaceful, ecologically harmonious and wise alien race native to the film’s planet of Pandora, allied of course by the ethnically diverse team of human scientists who rebel against their corporate-military overlords.
Arguably the worst example of how childish the movie can get is with Stephen Lang’s antagonist, Colonel Quaritch, who spouts off hilarious Bush Administration-style one-liners like, “We will fight terror with terror!” and offers a myriad of degrading analyses of the narrative’s native culture. He is the most simplistic, contrived stereotype of the crew-cut wearing, racist white man. He’s a macho meat-head through and through, with his bloodthirstiness and ignorance making up for his severe lack of cultural understanding. There are many comical stereotypes and one-note characters in Avatar, but Lang’s Quaritch is the most distracting and annoying.
Next up is the irritating character played by one of my least favorite actresses of all time: Michelle Rodriguez. I have yet to see her in a role where I was not wishing for her to be killed off as soon as possible. Thankfully, she does die in Avatar, though not until the end of the film. We end up having to sit through over two hours of “Hollywood’s most successful Latina actress” re-enacting her characters from The Fast and the Furious (2001) and SWAT (2003). Once again, Rodriguez plays the comical stereotype of the tough-as-nails tomboy devoid of personality with a itchy trigger finger, and is the lone cast-member who rivals Lang in terms of laughable lines.
Actually, I take that back. There’s another cast member who equals Rodriguez’s irritable performance, and that is Giovanni Ribisi as the clever stereotype of the rich, profit-obsessed, corporate executive asshole, Parker Selfridge, who might as well be a stand-in for all the Wall Street dickheads, yuppies, and wealthy WASP-elites that everyone loves to hate. Ribisi’s mannerisms and snotty, condescending body language are tiresome from his first line to his last. There is no line he utters that is not dripping with cheese.
A different, but no less annoying trend appears in our main hero, protagonist Jake Sully (an exceptionally wooden Sam Worthington), who goes to the other end of the acting spectrum as an emotionless, cardboard-cutout worthy of the ranks of Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars Prequels. Worthington is far less annoying than the aforementioned characters, as his robotic acting still feels less cliched and tiring than most of the story’s cartoons, but given how the main character of the film is neither likable nor relatable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is another disappointment.
With all that said, I would be negligent not to acknowledge those elements of Avatar that I thought were well done and that I liked. Much has been made of the visual FX and impressive technical aspects of this movie, and those adulations are justified. One area Cameron hasn’t yet sold out is special FX, as few audiences ever tire of eye-candy. Avatar has that in droves, as the glorious 3D CGI, motion-capture, and luscious sound design penetrate every aspect of the adventure — at least when the settings remain outdoors. The best sequences in the film are when what’s on camera is purely an audiovisual exercise, exemplified best by the first trip into the extraterrestrial bush — an excursion that ends with Worthington’s avatar being chased by a mammoth-sized alien jaguar (the thanator). This set-piece is intense, exciting, and packs a visceral punch that the rest of the film lacks, in part because we aren’t being constantly hit over the head with either a sappy love story or worse, a comical, hamfisted melodrama.
In retrospect, scenes like those depicting Weaver’s and Worthington’s avatars exploring the jungle make me wish that Avatar had been a survival tale, or some sort of adventure story focused on a protagonist trying to adapt to an alien wilderness. That much leaner, tighter focus would have helped bring out the visually charged elements and made them a more important (and consistent) part of the show, rather than an overused glorification of a Pocahontas tale that kept ripping us between two settings, one extremely visually fulfilling (the jungle), and one quite drab and boring (the military base).
The other main strength of Avatar is Sigourney Weaver, who turns in another strong performance. She’s one of the few characters in the story who feels like a real person and isn’t annoying, though sadly she’s killed off by the two-hour mark.
With all that in mind, Avatar remains a hamfisted, half-hearted political message candy-coated in pretty special FX that executives dangle over general audiences. One of cinema’s all-time most influential filmmakers now funnels all his ego and talent into grooming said ego, and showing everyone just how big the “King of the World” is. What I still can’t decide is this: Is Cameron choosing to make manipulative, one-dimensional movies with bombastic special FX, to reap in all the subsequent money and fame (i.e. selling out), is that worse than if he had simply “lost his touch” in the first place? I wonder sometimes, I really do.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Avatar boasts outstanding special FX and several incredible action scenes. The thanator chase is brilliant, making you wonder how much fun this movie could have been if it were a survival tale. Sigourney Weaver is as reliable as always.
— However… Avatar also boasts a manipulative, childish story. The film’s forced political message hits you over the head with its simplistic themes and even more one-dimensional characters. Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michelle Rodriguez are laughable. Sam Worthington is a flatline. Sigourney Weaver dies.
—> ON THE FENCE: It’s worth seeing to test your new 4k TV or home theatre system, and it’s not offensively stupid the way most Michael Bay films are. That being said, Avatar is little more than FX-glorified hamfisted social commentary.
? …and that’s how you scatter the roaches!