OVERRATED: Avatar (2009)

Avatar (USA, 2009)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver

James Cameron was once regarded as the thinking man's action director. Along with Paul Verhoeven, he was the man you could turn to if you wanted to argue that action movies didn't have to be stupid, obnoxious or driven entirely by special effects. Whether it was the time paradoxes of the Terminator series or the gender politics of Aliens, you were pretty certain to both thrilled and in some small way challenged by a James Cameron action movie.
But then, having been so consistent and promising, Cameron went and made Titanic, recouping record box office and 11 Oscars at the cost of whatever discipline or narrative talent he once had. Whatever the film's visual or technical accomplishments, it was ultimately as big a folly as the ship itself, with its impressive surface disguising the fact that its inner workings were far from unsinkable. Now, 12 years on, we have Cameron's Lusitania or second folly, otherwise known as Avatar.
I should begin by stating that I saw Avatar in good old-fashioned 2D. This instantly raises the question of whether my opinion is relevant, since the film was designed, shot and intended to be seen in 3D. Cameron claims that he delayed starting production until 3D cameras and motion capture technology had reached a stage where he felt that they were workable for his vision. Seeing Avatar in anything other than 3D would seem as foolish as wearing 3D glasses to watch a 2D film.
Let me make three points in my defence. Firstly, I didn't get to see Avatar in its original run, or when the Special Edition was released; since I don't have the money for a 3D TV, I had no choice but to view it in 2D. Secondly, if Cameron was so averse to people seeing his film in anything but 3D, he would have had the confidence to release it only on 3D screens; the box office takings would still have been immense, and the hype would have spread every bit as quickly. Thirdly, and most importantly, 3D is like any other visual innovation or device: it is not a guarantee of substance or narrative coherence. Simply putting on 3D glasses won't suddenly turn a complete mess into a masterpiece, just as fixing dodgy CGI in The Phantom Menace wouldn't make Jar Jar Binks any less annoying.
There have been comparisons between Avatar and Star Wars, and to a large extent they are understandable. Both are essentially presenting old stories as something new through impressive visuals - in Cameron's case, stories about westerners encountering the New World, the Pocahontas myth and environmental films. Both represent huge technical leaps compared to what had gone before, and said technical leaps outweigh or overshadow the films' narrative innovations, or lack thereof. And both are creatively memorable while not being well-directed. That said, you would struggle to argue that Cameron is a worse director than Lucas, let alone a worse writer.
The difference between the films is one of intent. Lucas never really knew what he had with Star Wars, with its commercial success being a complete surprise. Even when he came to make The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was still uncertain over what to do with something that had become a monolith of pop culture. Whatever you think of Star Wars as a piece of narrative, Lucas deserves at least some credit for maintaining a level of innocence in the original films. With Cameron, it is not innocence but ego that we are dealing with. He is on a mission to convert people to 3D, seeing himself as the vanguard of a cinematic revolution that only he can bring about. While Star Wars allowed you to sit back and enjoy yourself, Avatar demands your enjoyment and acceptance of 3D as the way forward. Both films are passion projects, but only one is preaching at us.
A related problem with Avatar is that it is drinking from not one, but two poisoned chalices. In other words, it is attempting to tackle two kinds of stories which American filmmaking has been historically inept at telling: stories about American settlers encountering natives, and stories about Man destroying the environment. Disney's Pocahontas is contrived and misjudged, Dances with Wolves is stony-faced and often dull, and even Terrence Malick came a cropper when he attempted a revisionist Pocahontas tale with The New World. And that's before we get to the long parade of bad environmental films, including Once Upon A Forest, Ferngully and A Troll in Central Park.
In his prime, Cameron may have been able to take these two death traps and turn them into something interesting and inventive. He is, after all, the man who ended The Abyss by recreating E. T. underwater - and it worked. But while the characters in Star Wars started as archetypes and then gradually grew into something more, the characters in Avatar are as rote and derivative as they come. The film is so riddled with clichés that you could spend many hours trying to spot all the films that it is blatantly and pretentiously ripping off.
The set-up is essentially Ferngully in space, in which a group of peaceful protagonists living in harmony with nature are threatened by evil, one-dimensional Man who are only interested in exploiting the land. The military are portrayed as blinkered, trigger-happy and intolerant of intelligent or diplomatic solutions, just like Radcliffe in Pocahontas or the army in Dances with Wolves. The main protagonist changes sides and becomes accepted by the natives, with Sam Worthington having even less charisma and acting ability than Kevin Costner. There are misunderstandings, culture clashes and forbidden love, before a final showdown in which the humans either learn something or are destroyed.
If the film was merely so predictable, this could be tolerated. If the story and characters brought nothing new to the table, we could accept Avatar as a generic but technically accomplished genre piece and move on. But the cliché-ridden story is made worse by how long and baggy the film is, taking more than two-and-a-half hours to tell a story that would barely stretch to an hour. Cameron cut his teeth under exploitation maestro Roger Corman, but ever since Piranha II he has steadily spurned the master's training about efficient storytelling on a low budget. Mark Kermode said of Watchmen that "length is not a measure of depth", and Avatar is every bit as long and shallow as Zack Snyder's folly.
When Lucas made the Star Wars prequels, some believed that they were how the original films would have looked, had Lucas had access to today's technology in the 1970s. The more you think about Avatar, the more it feels like a sequel to or modern reimagining of Aliens. Not only do both films prominently feature Sigourney Weaver as the voice of reason, but the designs of the military vehicles are uncannily similar - as are the characters, right down to the feisty female pilot. The only real difference is that the aliens turn out to be relatively harmless, with the groan-inducing unobtainium standing in for the crew of the base.
Everything I've said so far paints the film as an abject failure, which deserved every bad review and Smurf joke that it got. But there are a couple of saving graces which prevent Avatar from being beyond redemption. Its first and biggest asset is its visuals, which do have genuine wow factor and feature fantastic CGI. It may look like a video game crossed with a Yes album cover, but Cameron does succeed in creating a visual world which is enveloping and relatable, even if its components are not that original.
The second asset is the action set-pieces. Whatever skills he lost making Titanic, Cameron still knows how to do spectacle on a grand scale, and the final battle is every bit as mechanically impressive as the sinking of the ship. While your head demands that you resist caring about a series of empty clichés, the battle is shot and structured in such a way that your heart goes with it, and you emerge with at least a fleeting sense that something was accomplished. Even with all the 3D-friendly shots with characters coming directly towards the camera, these scenes still feel very well-executed.
Avatar is an immensely flawed folly of a film which deserves precious little of its hype. It's not an unmitigated disaster, with distinctive visuals and well-orchestrated battle scenes that are engaging in their own right. But once the visual novelty of Pandorum has worn off, nothing can stop the clichés coming in a wild stampede, until the whole film leaves you feeling chastened and cheated. Cameron may yet make another good film, and it is entirely possible that, like Star Wars, the sequels will be an improvement. But as things stand, the emperor is wearing about as much clothes as the Na'vi.