James Cameron’s new movie Avatar opened in wide release on Friday. My local hexadeciplex started showing it as 12:02 am. I hadn’t been to a midnight movie since the first Harry Potter movie, so I picked up a ticket on Fandango, set my alarm for 11:15 and was five rows back in the center with my medium popcorn and Diet Coke when my digital watch beeped twelve. In case you’ve been living on another planet (or perhaps one of its moons), Avatar is a big budget blockbuster chock full of spectacle that marketing folks at 20th Century Fox have been telling us will change the way we see movies forever more. Normally, that kind of hyperbole is – well, hyperbole. However, in this case I have to agree. I’ve seen stories that Cameron spent $200, $250, maybe $300 million dollars on this movie. I can honestly say that the money is all on the screen every minute for almost three hours.
Almost the entire movie takes place on the far away moon of a gas giant called Pandora. The lower gravity allows the trees to grow to the size of skyscrapers. The natives are ten foot tall blue giants called na’vi. The atmosphere of Pandora is poisonous (though fires can burn, so there must be at least some oxygen). Humans must wear gas masks outside, march around in large mecha straight out of Robotech or interface with avatars, hybrids comprised of human and na’vi DNA. I had no doubt Pandora existed. Cameron wisely directed the movie with a minimum of swooping impossible camera shots that plague so many other CGI movies. Everything seems like it was shot on location and he isn’t afraid to show us detail (and there are lots of details on Pandora). The biosphere is as varied as any rain forest on Earth. It’s populated with all creatures great and – well, greater (Pandora is deeper and darker than any African jungle could dream of). The plants glow with bioluminescence. The flowers and prehistoric tree branches light up under the feet of the main characters like Michael Jackson in the music video for Billie Jean.
The character design is very well done. In a movie that ran almost three hours, I can only think of one shot where the characters seemed a little off. That’s not bad at all. James Cameron developed a new method of capturing the performance of an actor and adjusting it to the slightly alien shape of the na’vi anatomy. It makes their performances very realistic and natural. If you told me leading actress Zoë Saldana is actually the daughter of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Smurfette, I would not blink an eye. The other performances by Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington are also well done. In fact, I liked Worthington’s performance better as the big blue alien rather than plain old human. However, that might be because the avatars get to go places and do things that are so much more neat-o than where the humans hang out. Their corporate / military base complex is done up in typical gray metal futuristic office world décor that would have been at home in Outland or Aliens. I’ve seen the future and – frankly – it’s kind of dull.
This leads me to the weakest part of Avatar: the screenplay. I’ll give credit to James Cameron for pulling out most of the cringe-worthy dialogue found in so many action movies. And when he “borrows” plot elements, he has the decency to borrow from good sources at least. If you liked Dances with Wolves, you’ll like Avatar. If you liked Dragonriders of Pern, you’ll like Avatar. Ultimately, there are few surprises. If you have seen an action movie in the past three decades, you’ll know what happens to each character shortly after they’re introduced. You have Tom Blankslate the main character who meets up with Chief’s Beautiful Daughter. Sure she’s annoyed by him at first, but – come on, what do you think is going to happen? The human compound is run by Colonel Nastyscar whom the audience loathes from his very first line. I don’t have to tell you where the Colonel ends up at the end of the movie; you know what happens to bad guys who are not only bad but are dickwads about it, don’t you? I found myself keeping a mental checklist of all the points the movie was making and just checking them off as – one after another – they were introduced along the way like plot mile markers.
When I came down hard on James Cameron’s previous epic, Titanic, I found I had to defend my criticism against all those who thought it was just “the best movie ever”. Since my constructive criticism contains spoilers to the plot of Avatar, I’ll just link to my thoughts here. You can take it or leave it.
In the end, I’m glad I made my midnight run to see Avatar. I enjoyed the eye candy on the screen as much as I liked my three dollar box of chocolate covered raisins. When it comes out on BluRay (DVD just won’t do for Avatar), I’ll be sure and buy the version with the ten hours of documentaries describing in exhaustive detail how the movie magic was accomplished. However, there will be a day – probably not in the too distant future – when the $300 million on the screen will be superseded. At that point, Avatar may lose some of its luster. After all, candy – any candy – is enjoyable at the moment, but ultimately is just empty calories.