James Cameron‘s Avatar is decidedly one of the (if not the) most anticipated films of 2009. This weekend, the nearly $250-million alien tale of epic proportions hits theaters. And it’s about time. Avatar is more than 15-years in the making. Poor Cameron had to wait for technology to catch up to his vision for the ground-breaking yarn before it could be fully spun. The film’s visuals clearly benefited from this extended period of study and execution. The writing and the plot, on the other hand, didn’t. As Avatar‘s appearance continued getting better with time, its story and structured waned. Considering the holiday time of year, it’s ironic that to enjoy Avatar is to revel in the wrapping. Remember that when opening your presents in the coming weeks.
Avatar isn’t an empty box by any stretch, but it’s less fun digging into the story than simply marveling at its appearance. Set in 2154 on the distant planet Pandora, Avatar surrounds the conflict between Pandora’s indigenous species, the Na’vi, and an intruding human encampment of scientists, greedy businessmen and a military-for-hire. The Na’vi, despite a myriad of physical advances, are generally regarded by the humans as primitive and therefore ripe for pillaging. In Avatar, the humans are after a precious mineral that just so happens to sit directly beneath a massive tree that marks the home of Na’vi society; their home is cleverly called Hometree, and the mineral, unobtainium. Get it? These details come about pretty early in the nearly 3-hour-long film, giving you an immediate sense that Avatar suffers from a pretty significant writing impairment.
The plot, too, suffers deficits in the details and draws clear attention to the great imbalance between the film’s substance and visuals. The greedy business men and trigger-happy mercenaries want to oust the Na’vi from their magical tree in order to collect the unobtainium. The tree-hugging scientists, however, want to go about it a more humane way and learn about the giant blue race of natives. The Na’vi just want to be left alone, and don’t fully understand why the weapon-clad intruders are all up in their FernGully. It’s not hard to imagine the result of this volatile equation, nor is it terribly interesting considering the familiarity of theme.
The center-point of Avatar is Sam Worthington‘s character, Jake Sully, who proves valuable to both the scientists and military. The lab geeks have created hybrids using human and Na’vi DNA, which are controlled by human operators — the mind of the hybrid is linked to the human’s. Being wheelchair-bound and particularly suited to controlling an alien avatar, Sully, who is also an ex-Marine, can get the scientists the research they desire but through an eye toward military operations. Sully’s undercover activities eventually get him in too deep, forcing him to chose sides.
On the whole, Avatar contains but a small morsel of compelling storytelling. Cameron’s depictions of the Na’vi and their interconnectedness to their planet is actually pretty intriguing. Most are familiar with the existentialist idea of “oneness” and that everything in nature is related or connected. Avatar gives surprising color and detail to this idea, despite burdening it with cliched depictions of the native culture and behaviors; the tribes of Pandora bear surprising resemblance to the tribes of Africa, despite the 4.3 million light years separating the two.
It’s best just to leave Avatar‘s wrapping in tact. Not enough can be said about the film’s special effects and visual treatment. Cameron, through his ground-breaking use of 3D technology, has created an entirely new movie experience. Similar to Sully’s character adapting to his new perspective through his avatar, so too will audiences have to adjust to the onslaught of rich details and elements that make up Pandora — digitally created from the tree-floor up, by the way. Cameron’s use of 3D avoids all manner of routine, in-your-face tactics. Instead, Avatar gives audiences layers of subtleties that envelope and overwhelm. Despite the extended runtime of the film, a second viewing is near a necessity in order to fully process the wonderment of Cameron’s unique world.
Avatar impresses now, but the shelf-life of the film won’t be nearly as great. Eventually, audiences are going to tire of the fancy wrapping — particularly if watching without the full 3D experience — and want to tear into the film. And when they do, there’s going to be little of value inside. But not today. Today, Avatar is the biggest adventure to be had at the box office.