Let's get this out of the way: Avatar is a beautiful movie. Stunningly, even shockingly beautiful, and not in the inert, static way of Watchmen or the more recent work of Tim Burton, which emphasize the creation of detailed, meticulously crafted tableaux. Avatar is beautiful in a cinematic way. The individual details of its locales are lovely, but it's the movement--walking, running, swimming, flying--within those locales that takes one's breath away. And breathtaking as its beauty is, Avatar isn't eye-popping. The film encourages you to forget that you're watching computer generated characters in a computer generated environment, and its use of 3D technology is subtle and thought-out. Avatar is the third 3D film I've seen this year, and if Up treated the technology as an afterthought and barely made use of it, and Coraline went out of its way to poke the audience in the eye (and made me very queasy in the process) with Avatar James Cameron has fully integrated this new tool into his director's toolbox, using it not to draw attention to itself but to create a fully immersive environment. There are people for whom this kind of aesthetic achievement is sufficient in itself to make a successful piece of cinema, and if you're one of those people then God be with you, but I'm not. So having established just how beautiful Avatar is, let me pay it the greatest compliment that its beauty will buy from me: Avatar is beautiful enough that for most of its 160 minutes, that beauty is very nearly sufficient to distract from the fact that it is such a boring movie.
I use that word deliberately. Avatar's problem isn't that it has a stupid plot or that it is racist, though both criticisms are true. The latter should probably bother me more than it does, as it turns out that all the Dances With Aliens/What These Blue-Skinned People Need is a Honky/Pocahontas in Space jokes were dead accurate. The thing is, though, we started making those jokes when the first trailers and plot descriptions rolled out. We all knew what we were getting into when we bought out tickets, and it seems almost redundant to criticize a movie that wears its racism so proudly on its sleeve. When the film's production designer obliviously explains that making the film's Others blue-skinned aliens freed the filmmakers to tell a story that would have been considered racist if told about humans, and doesn't see the problem in what he's saying despite the fact that the only thing distinguishing those aliens from stereotypical Native Americans is their blue skin, what is there for a humble blogger to add? Of course, the very fact that such opinions are held and expressed means that it isn't pointless to criticize Avatar and films like it for their racism, and I'm grateful to those who have done that work already, but that racism is not, to my mind, a problem that could have been fixed and whose repair would have made Avatar a better film, like the Nigerian characters in District 9. Racism is baked so deeply into the film's makeup that if Avatar were not racist, it would be a completely different movie. This is, perhaps, desirable, but it's not a particularly meaningful criticism of the film as it turned out, nor the reason that it fails.
Similarly, when initial reviews of the film called it technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted, my reaction was: And? So? Therefore? This is a James Cameron movie we're talking about, right? Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers. Aliens and Terminator 2 are films that I can never get enough of. I saw Titanic twice at the movie theater, and not for the love story. I even like The Abyss, which a goodly portion of Cameron fandom seems to consider a snoozefest. But as much as I love his movies, I can't deny that technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted is a pretty accurate description of each and every one of them. Avatar's plot--a human marine infiltrates the native population of an alien planet in an attempt to persuade them to move away from a priceless resource his employers want to get at, goes native, leads alien revolt--is not significantly dumber than that of any of Cameron's other films, and neither is it a huge break with tradition for him to cast a black-hearted, baby-killing military-industrial complex as the film's villain while making sweeping, vastly oversimplified statements about the wonders of nature and the evils of technology.
The reason that Cameron's previous films worked despite their silly and simplistic plots is that he has an almost preternatural talent for writing engaging action narratives within the boundaries of those stupid premises. It's a very simple formula--a sequence of set pieces in which the characters encounter and overcome a life-threatening challenge, each iteration raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension while also laying the groundwork for the film's culminating life-threatening challenge and the method by which the characters overcome it--and Cameron's gift is the ability to string together these challenges in a way that seems organic, and to build towards the film's climax without letting the story go slack or overwhelm the viewer. At the same time, Cameron knows how to write characters--not as Dostoevskian portraits of complexity and contradiction, but as recognizable and easily distinguishable individuals. At the end of the wakeup from cryo scene in Aliens, we know most of the important marine characters--Vasquez is a butch woman, Hudson is a clown, Gorman is a green officer, Bishop is a robot. None of these are particularly nuanced or subtle characterizations, and they are never expanded upon, but they are vivid and effective, so that later on in the film, when Hudson goes to pieces, or Vasquez and Gorman die a badass death together, we're affected. Cameron can craft these kinds of plots and characters because he knows how to write essentially, making plot points and lines of dialogue do double and triple duty, leaving not a single ounce of fat on any of his narratives. In Aliens, Hicks gives Ripley his locator bracelet. It's a gesture of friendship and perhaps nascent romance, which brings Hicks into focus and sets up his greater importance in the film's second half. Later, Ripley gives the bracelet to Newt, as a way of establishing their mother-daughter bond. At the end of the film, Ripley uses the bracelet to find Newt in the queen's lair. A single prop fuels two character dynamics and a major plot point.
There are, in other words, two James Camerons. There's the detail-obsessed technophile, who invents new kinds of submersible cameras with which to film the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor, recreates the ship's interior down to the wallpaper and table settings, waits twelve years for filmmaking technology to catch up to his vision before he makes a movie, and then uses that technology as if he's been working with it his whole career. And there's the writer, who knows how to sweep viewers along into his story, create characters whom the audience will immediately latch onto and wish to see triumph, and arouse fear and tension when those character are put in harm's way. The problem with Avatar, the reason that it is a beautiful but boring movie, is that only one of those Camerons turned up to work. When Avatar reaches for our emotions, it reaches exclusively for a sense of wonder at its beauty. Not joy at the characters' triumphs, not fear for their lives, not love or hate or horror, only wonder. Yet for all that emphasis on wonder, there is not a single scene in Avatar which is the equivalent of the "I'm the king of the world!" scene in Titanic--no moment in which we experience the characters' happiness vicariously.
The reason for that is that Avatar deliberately short-circuits that vicarious reaction by leaving its characters out of the equation. Avatar's characters, and particularly Jake Sully, the human lead, aren't people in their own right, but avatars for the audience. Their purpose in the film is to provide us with a point of view from which to see its beauty. Jake is a blank, a black hole at the center of the film (and quite stupid to boot--there is not a single moment when one senses that he can guess the consequences his actions, no matter how obvious those consequences might be) and this is entirely deliberate. His purpose is to give us a window on Cameron's technological accomplishment, but because no matter how immersive 3D technology is, we never forget that we're sitting in a movie theater, the only reaction we have to that accomplishment is wonder. We don't feel joy, we don't feel exhilaration. We don't feel like the king of world. Cameron knows this, so he doesn't bother to make Jake feel these feelings either, and neither does he try, as he did in his previous films, to create tension or fear. What's left is a plot we all recognize, whose beats are slow and predictable. It's pretty easy to guess which characters will live and which will die, and since Cameron has done so little work to invest us in them, it's hard to care about either outcome. And thus Avatar becomes boring.
It's interesting to look back on 2009's science fictional film output. At the end of a decade so thoroughly dominated by comic book and superhero films, 2009, through a confluence of scheduling issues, saw these drop away (except for the abysmal Wolverine) to make room for a slate of, at least on paper, very interesting science fiction projects. Even if we discounted the extruded science fiction products like Transformers 2 and Terminator: Salvation on the one hand, and the independent and semi-independent outsider efforts like Moon and District 9 on the other, we'd still be left with a whole raft of bold, risk-taking films: Watchmen, which tried to adapt one of the most difficult, critically beloved, and unwelcoming graphic novels ever written; Star Trek, a reboot of a franchise worn into the ground by its previous handlers and left behind by most of its fans; 9, a steampunkish animated film geared at adults (which, with its emphasis on visuals over plot and characters, feels like an appetizer for Avatar); Avatar, a lavishly expensive experiment in an untested technology from one of the most famously temperamental and self-indulgent directors in the business. Such a wide variety of styles and approaches, and yet nearly all of these films ran the gamut from beautiful failures to deeply flawed successes. Moon is the best science fiction film of the year, but it's also the one whose ambitions were slightest--a short chamber piece whose success was derived mainly from the strong performance at its center. It's the cinematic equivalent of a short story, and though these are rare enough that efforts like Moon should be cosseted and protected like hot-house flowers, I'm also partial to the space operas and planetary romances to which the cinematic medium is so uniquely suited. It's been a long time since we've seen a successful one of these, and if James Cameron can't even deliver one up, what hope is there for the future?