Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. 2009.

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Reviewed by Diane Joy Baker

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:4 (#333) in April 2010.]

Avatar is a beautifully moving comic book. No doubt: the visual elements in this film are some of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. It’s almost on a par with seeing The Wizard of Oz switch from black-and-white to color. Pandora’s setting is exquisite, even spiritually portentous. The characters (especially those we are supposed to sympathize with) are suitably well drawn, with ordinary, likeable qualities. From the first frame, our heartbeats synchronize with Jake Sully’s (I hear echoes of that beloved New York airplane captain), as he emerges from cryogenic sleep. Who doesn’t love that gritty determination, combined with his disability; a hero established in a single scene. Sam Worthington lives up to his name in an easy slide. Grace, played by all-time favorite Sigourney Weaver, is curmudgeonly, evoking Alien and Gorillas in the Mist both at once. Even minor characters are well drawn. Too bad they didn’t take as much trouble for the villains.

Underneath all those visual thrills and dollops of nobility, however, we have a two-dimensional plot-line. I don’t know what the scenery is like in 3D, since I can’t use the glasses, but I know what well-rounded (3D) characters are. Just watch any episode of Babylon 5. I have begun to formulate a rule for films: the more tech elements you see on screen, the thinner the chances that film-spinners will produce a complex, satisfying script. All those glorious colors are great: except when they’re all that’s on screen.

Consider the valued element that “The Company” is after: Unobtanium. Puh-leez! A friend of mine pointed out that the ore provides a super-conductor effect – at room temperature, which means tremendous energy. The problem? My friend should not have had to point this out to me. The writers should have. Yes, the stuff floated (as do the mountains). Visually powerful, but Cameron made no connection as to why they need the stuff, especially since The Company has Avatar units, sleek space ships, neat floating data screens that everyone carries around like sheets of plastic. Nor do they seem to lack energy. We have no notion of what Earth must be like, except for a single line indicating that “they trashed their own planet.” Even the smarmy Company rep isn’t talking.

In many films, broad strokes are necessary to get the story moving. Arthur C. Clarke’s books (and films) are good examples. You know, when watching 2001 and 2010 that all the scientific architecture is under there, solid enough to walk upon. Clarke, though not a professional scientist, is at least scientific. Cameron’s story is as slender as one of those limbs Sully crawls along as he gets used to his Avatar.

What do you get when you finish watching this film? A parable – and not a very good one. (Spoilers follow.) Bad Company exploits Noble Tribe for Greed. Add in Totally Evil Military Star who subverts Sully’s mission with promises of restoring him to able-bodied glory – and blows up the Tribe’s ancestral home. Jake plays Last Samurai, even evoking a mythical character from the tribe’s past as he harnesses the Most Dangerous Flying Beastie to unite them. This is after the tribe discovers he’s betrayed them. I’m sure a number of Earth Indian tribes would not keep him around after such a betrayal. Scalping might have been their response.

I kept thinking at every juncture, Cameron is far too easy on his characters. At least a few of the Tribe speak English. How did that happen, asks Sully. He gets no response. (Maybe they got it by sticking their long braids into the Great Shining Tree, which knows all, of course.) He falls for a tribal princess (Zoe Saldana), and she conveniently falls for him. And the great military strategist can’t figure out that he needs to pull the plug on Jake’s Avatar? Grace is smart enough to figure this out, since they move the science base to a location unknown to higher-ups. Sure, there’s a time or two when he’s away from the slumped Avatar, which is in danger, as he wolfs down a hurried dinner out of the tank. So the Tribe picks him up and takes him along. (At one point, the war-chieftain points out that this is a “false body.”) And of course, Grace gets killed off. Will she return as a ghost in the next film? Anything’s possible!

All these inconsistencies soon begin to nibble away at every thrilling scene. Who can’t enjoy all those flying scenes, the psychedelic effect of those paisley creatures, the subtle blues of the Na’vi skin, the glorious lights of the Home Tree, the colors which light up underfoot as people step on the purple ground cover? (The video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” kept running through my mind as I watched – an effect James Cameron couldn’t have anticipated.) However, none of this involves the mind. It affects only emotions. That’s because this is only a moving comic book. Lovely to watch, but after all the colors fade, there’s not much to think about or take home with you, save for the giant “WOW” factor. I love a good SF film, but this barely rises to the level of “pulp.” At least, when E. E. “Doc” Smith created his Lensman series, he did a little more than spray around a few pretty color-clouds. Appropriately, they won Oscars for the right elements (and only those elements): visuals.

Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. 2009.

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