Saturday, December 26, 2009


I took my brother and my daughter willing and hoping for the best to see Avatar in IMAX 3D at the 11:30 AM matinee on Christmas Eve. The film is a visual feast. Many of the digital effects shots are magically compelling. It ranks with other great cinematic films as one of the most beautiful things you will ever see. You can almost touch the life on Pandora. Almost.

Pandora is a gorgeous, savage jungle world. It is the home of the Na’vi People. The Na’vi are central to the telling of the story and therefore they have to be visually convincing. James Cameron masters this situation as few other directors can and delivers an eye-catching thrill ride that doesn’t really seem to last 2 hours and 40 minutes. Time flies.

There is some depth to the back story of
the Na’vi as revealed in Cameron’s screenplay. Pandora is not a planet but a moon of a lifeless, gaseous planet. Yet, life flourishes abundantly on this moon. The vegetation is evolving like the Na’vi and is, in fact, more evolved than them in the sense that Pandora’s organics is connected like neurons of the human brain. Memories can be stored in the roots of the trees and they are shared within a vast thriving natural planetary network. That is an interest twist of the “Gaia” metaphysic, connecting the people’s ancestors with the roots of the trees.

Avatar never made me want to take my eye off the screen. Cameron held my gaze in a timeless state, experienced in the most technologically advanced way possible.

The unfortunate thing, for Cameron, is that the visual magnitude of his spectacle demands either a powerful, unique metaphorical message and/or characters of profound depth to balance all that eye-candy on the screen. It is here that Avatar falls short and for that reason it comes off as just a bit too showy and incomplete.

The story has been done before. Cameron adds no twists really except in the action sequences and the visuals. The characters themselves are of cardboard. This was
a chief criticism of Cameron when Titanic came out. I argued then that there was more character depth in that film than the critics gave it credit for. Perhaps I was wrong. But, even so, Titanic is an awesome movie, not just a blockbuster. It made a fundamental metaphorical statement about the experience of human space through time which is its reason for greatness in my view.

But, in Avatar there is no compelling character or metaphorical element. I never connect with any of their emotions or aspirations. They are all entertaining but I find none of them engaging as they are obviously formula-matic. The subplot stories are largely cliché – of forbidden love and of the greed of corporations against (seemingly) defenseless Nature. These just can’t compete with this joyously visual world Cameron so masterfully creates. This is its weakness as a film.

Cameron does do a great job, however, of making the Na’vi come to life as a cultural whole, as a People, and for that he is to be congratulated. This is an invented culture and it is made totally believable because of Cameron’s attention to detail and in his slow revelation to the audience of the secrets of Pandora in ways even the Na’vi would not understand – only humans do, through human science.

It is not developed so much as disclosed but the audience’s belief in the
culture of the Na’vi (there will doubtlessly be many people desiring to learn more about Cameron’s vision for this culture) makes up for some of the film’s lack of depth and cliché use of the major characters.

I give Avatar a solid 8. It has imperfections but is, nevertheless, masterfully done. About one-third of the sold-out audience of several hundred clapped very loudly and enthusiastically at the end of the film. That is something I don’t experience very often. Avatar obviously inspires viewers. There can be no harm in that.

There are plans for a trilogy, of course. So, perhaps more character depth or some greater message will follow. Perhaps this was just an introductory effort to a larger plan. Perhaps.

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