I was wrong.
There I said it. Are you happy?
Having gleefully projected writer/director James Cameron's "Avatar" as one of the "10 Fall Films That Are Really Gonna' Suck," I must confess that despite the film's godawful trailer and over-reliance on new age techno-wizardry, "Avatar" does not, in fact, suck.
"Avatar" does, however, represent everything that is wrong, boring, out of touch and unnecessarily excessive about the Hollywood studio machine. While "Avatar" quite often dazzles, and indeed it does, "Avatar" is very nearly devoid of that spark of humanity that would allow the film to soar. Instead, James Cameron is content to create magnificent imagery and awesomely beautiful worlds that feel uncomfortable and pointless without a sense or purpose.
Said to be the most expensive film ever made "Avatar" is a depressing statement about Hollywood's desire to use its ever-advancing technology at the expense of films that entertain, challenge, inspire and shape the human experience. "Avatar" is a far more successful photojournal than it is a film, a collection of impressive visuals best viewed in 3-D to get the full effect of Cameron's vision.
The world that Cameron creates is utterly amazing with seemingly endless layers of color and textured landscapes in the zero-gravity land known as Pandora. Pandora offers a resource, unobtainium, that humans desire. The Na'vi, the blue-skinned peaceful people who inhabit the land, are wary of their human invaders and thus the humans utilize "Avatars" to penetrate the Na'vi community. The Avatars, genetically engineered to resemble the Na'vi but controlled by human users led by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-using Marine afforded the opportunity to live vicariously as an Avatar. The problem becomes that as Jake infiltrates the Na'vi way of living, he comes to respect their people, their ways of community and, of course, we even get a bit of a love story between Jake and Na'vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) tossed in for good measure.
As Jake and Neytiri grow closer to one another, the humans, most notably a greedy business type (Giovanni Ribisi) and fellow marine (Stephen Lang), begin to see dollar signs.
At 150 minutes, "Avatar" warrants a phrase seldom used in movie reviews, "visually exhausting." "Avatar," if seen in 3-D, is a visually exhausting potpourri of landscapes, layers of fauna and technical wizardry utilized, at least in some cases, in far more creative ways than usually captured in 3-D ways. Most filmmakers are content to create moments of eye candy with 3-D, but Cameron seems intent on literally immersing his audiences into an entirely unique world. While these images are awesome, they are also, perhaps, a bit excessive and distracting given Cameron's complete lack of attention to character development and this little thing called dialogue.
Not since the "Star Wars" films has dialogue this nonsensical, this insipid inhabited such a big budget, widely anticipated project. While there's no doubt that many in the audience for "Avatar" will be so awestruck by Pandora that they simply won't even care about the film's structural issues and weak dialogue, regular moviegoers, true sci-fi fans and anyone actually paying attention will likely cringe on a regular basis as the bland Worthington spouts platitude after platitude.
"Avatar" could have been a masterpiece, though one can't help but think it might've taken a director, certainly a writer, other than Cameron to make it happen. Often similar in tone to this year's much lower-budget "Terra," "Avatar" is practically begging for a lighter touch than the narcissistic Cameron can possibly muster. Shot after shot in "Avatar" screams out "This is an important film" or "Wait. This is a really important thing I'm saying here," rather than creating interesting characters and, even more importantly, trusting the audience to actually get it without filmmaker manipulation. While Cameron has always struggled with his self-importance, in "Avatar" this self-absorption is front and center, perhaps owing as much to having a rather weak lead who drowns under the weight of the material.
While "Avatar" is largely devoid of humanity, story, dialogue and character, there's little denying that in terms of its technical achievements it is nearly unrivaled this year including what is easily the best use of performance-capture technology yet. One can just feel Robert Zemeckis drooling at every cinematic frame. Yet, as detailed and wondrous as is the technology it's also hard not to look at "Avatar" and feel like it all adds up to a widescreen video game with IMAX magnificence. Sure, it's beautiful to behold and experience but a mere few hours after the screening the images have already begun to fade, the world of Pandora seems a distant memory and, certainly, all traces of dialogue have escaped my consciousness.
In other words, for all its awesomeness, "Avatar" is completely and utterly forgettable.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic