It’s hard to review a James Cameron movie, because whether you like it is sort of irrelevant. It becomes part of pop culture, like a song. People will talk about it, children will think of it nostalgically in 10 years, and you’ll probably find yourself humming it on the subway, even if you hate it. Call Avatar brilliant trash. It’s a lot like Titanic — grandiose and impressive on an epic scale, and riddled with clichés throughout. But James Cameron is a smart guy. You figure he knows a cliché when he’s writing one. He likes them and he doesn’t care what you think, much the way your mom likes bikers.
Sam Worthington, who’s a pretty solid leading man even if he can’t get rid of his Aussie accent, plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine (they have the technology to fix his spine, but he can’t afford it). When Sully’s identical twin brother, a scientist on Pandora, gets murdered, they need Sully to take his brother’s place on a research expedition. Since he shares his brother’s DNA, he’s the only one who can operate his Avatar, a cloned being made from the DNA of his brother mixed with that of the 12-foot, blue cat-monkeys that live there. Sigourney Weaver, who runs the research expedition on a grant from the corporation mining Pandora, isn’t happy that she has to take on a Marine with no science training. Meanwhile, corporate guy Giovanni Ribisi, who wants the scientists to figure out how to get the Na’avi to move out of the giant tree they live in so he can mine for the ‘Unobtainium’ underneath (yes, they call it that unironically. it’s retarded), hopes Sully will be the non-tree-hugging pussy he needs for intel on the ground. Ditto Stephen Lang, a scarred Marine leading the force of ex-military mercenaries providing security on Pandora. Michelle Rodriguez is there too, and she’s a hardcore Latina.
You can pretty much predict what’s going to happen from there, and the only reason you don’t totally expect everything that happens is that you’re thinking, “Wait, no, he couldn’t possibly have made it this simplistic…. could he?” He did. But the story is really just a skeleton for the visuals, which are pretty mind blowing. I’m not ready to say that it wouldn’t have been just as good in 2D, but the 3D here is easily the best that’s been done. It doesn’t hurt your eyes or make the picture dim like in Up. It’s still a gimmick, but Cameron uses it better than anyone has before. A few of the scenes of climbing and pterodactyl riding in the beginning actually had my ass puckering because the threat of falling seemed so real.
Right, the story. It’s so cheesey in so many ways that you’ll find yourself actually rooting against it at times. We know Jake’s going to fall for one of the native broads, fine — you can’t blame him, lanky topless chicks with sensual tails and ears that move like a cat? Hawt. — but then all you’re thinking is “Oh God, just don’t let his girl be the Chief’s daughter.” Sorry. Not only is she the chief’s daughter, the chief is that guy who played Geronimo.
I’m not into the whole assuming-every-character-and-plot-point-is-a-philosophical-metaphor-and-reflection-of-political-ideology thing, and I kind of despise anyone who is, but the Na’avi couldn’t fit the description of the “noble savage” more perfectly. In fact, considering he called the mineral “unobtanium”, it’s a wonder he didn’t just call them Noble Savages. The Na’avi are perfectly good and the corporate guys are perfectly evil. The Na’avi are basically American Indians and the plot is basically Dances with Wolves. While I’m sure there’ve been plenty of times in U.S. history when the white man was perfectly evil and killed a bunch of innocent Indians for no better reason than because they were squatting on some gold, anyone who went to school between the 70s and the present gets a little sick of hearing that story. At some point you wonder what the purpose of retelling it is, especially as simplistically as it’s delivered here, other than trying to make us feel like crap. I get it, I suck because of my soulless lifestyle and technology. Is there an iPhone app for white guilt?
In this case, the purpose of retelling that story is mainly to take us to a vivid new world and show off some technological toys. Which Avatar does incredibly well. Exploring a new world is always welcome. But that’s no excuse for making such a bonehead parable. And I’d love to enjoy it completely on its own merits without considering the political parallels, but when you call the mercenaries’ plan to blow up the Na’avi’s Tree of Memories (…don’t ask) “a shock and awe campaign”, and the natives fight back with suicide missions while ululating, you sort of force us to. You have to cut the references to contemporary political realities if you don’t want us to see it as a parable. And if it is meant as a parable, it’s a pretty bad one, one which largely boils down to “Your way of life is wrong. Grow dreadlocks, strip off your clothes, and live in the f-cking forest.”
The good guys fight the bad guys. The hero leads his army and gets the girl. Someone dies and gets revived (because of love, and miracles!). The main bad guy dies last, and he gets the best death, courtesy of the main good guy. I could’ve done without any or all of these things (come on, at least one???), but like I said, it’s well-done trash. Well done because despite the faithfulness to a tried-and-true narrative, James Cameron takes the time to make you believe it. It’s not like in Terminator Salvation when Christian Bale jumps out the back of a cargo plane into an ocean heaving with 30-foot swells and then just shows up on looking wet on the bridge of a submarine with no explanation as to how he got there. James Cameron is a nerd. You know he’d have thought of an explanation for that. It might not be a great or totally plausible explanation, but it’d be more than just “uh, because jump cut?”
Is it a great movie? No. But it’s an incredibly watchable bad one.
Grade: B+ (I guess? Like I said, it doesn’t really matter because you’re going to see it anyway)