James Cameron is back for the first time, more or less, since 1997's Titanic. Among other things, Avatar is his way of trying to reclaim the art of movie-making for the movie theater. He spent his hiatus pondering the idea of audiences watching movies on cell phones, and he didn't like the implications. With Avatar, he proposes to raise 3-D film-making to a new level and bring something altogether different to the theater setting. I'm definitely in the Cameron fan club, so I had little doubt that he could accomplish this if anyone could. The results are mixed, in my opinion, but worth seeing. So...my thoughts.
The writing is the first thing about this movie that demands your attention, and not in a good way. Be warned, this isn't just the usual snarking that people always feel obligated to do with science fiction movies. It really is bad. This is especially surprising from Cameron, who normally stands head and shoulders above other genre writers. The dialogue in the early part of the film is so blatantly expositional that you wonder why the characters don't just drop all pretenses and talk straight to the camera. "This is the video log...we want to get in the habit of documenting, blah, blah, blah." The familiar Cameron characters are here--spunky female pilot, slimy corporate suit, belligerent jarhead--but the roles don't have much life in them. And for all the film's length, it seems too rushed to develop a detailed, lived-in world like the ones in Aliens and The Abyss. Overall, it doesn't play like a Cameron film.
As for the political overtones and supposed anti-Americanism, they don't require much comment. America is the bad guy here, which has proven quite a shock to the legions of sci-fi fans who either didn't see the Star Wars movies or somehow didn't notice what they were about. Apparently there are more of them out there than you would think. Cameron doesn't spend much time belaboring the point, but instead draws things in very simple strokes. The military basically works for the corporations, everyone's out for the resources, and we'll kill anyone who gets in our way. In other words, it's the same as real life, but because the action takes place so far from Earth it's all carried on straightforwardly and without any mumbo-jumbo about spreading democracy. Nothing here that should be controversial unless you've been living under a rock for the last 60 years or so.
Aside from the writing and directing, the other potential disappointment with Avatar is the 3-D. This will depend on what you expect going into it. My guess was that Cameron would create a much smoother, more integrated 3-D world and one that you could really get lost in without thinking of it as an "effect." This isn't really what Avatar does, though. The environments have the familiar pop-up book quality, meaning they look like multiple layers of flat elements rather than a real three-dimensional world. They're often rich and beautiful, and just as often busy and distracting.
What is groundbreaking about Avatar is not the 3-D but the expressive computer-generated characters. It has aptly been described as "breaking the CG barrier" because, like The Abyss and Terminator 2, it's a film that will change the way CG is used. An actor will be able to play any sort of character in CG form, including human characters of any age or description, and fit seamlessly into a realistic setting. The non-humanoid creatures are a step up, too, moving in a wild, energetic way that's terrifying at times.
Of course, no discussion would be complete without some mention of the battle sequences. They're good, and at times they almost seem about to be magnificent, especially in the aerial battle near the end. But after nearly two hours of lazy narrative and self-indulgent "aww...pretty!" shots of assorted flora and fauna, there's surprisingly little payoff in this department. It doesn't help that the grand finale is a ridiculous hand-to-hand brawl on the forest floor. Then again, it is interesting that Cameron revisits the alien vs. loader theme with the alien as the good guy this time.
Avatar is a breakthrough of sorts, though maybe not the one Cameron hoped for. As of now, we still haven't seen anything in 3-D that isn't essentially a gimmick film with some flashy effects to make up for its shortcomings. Except Coraline, but that doesn't entirely count. Maybe Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland will buck the trend. Meanwhile, Avatar is at least worth seeing, both for its own merits and as a preview of what special effects are about to be.