"Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an end to themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing." - George Lucas, 1985
Those words are forever etched in my mind as living proof of an artist's fall from grace. When "The Phantom Menace" opened in theaters a decade ago, the hype surrounding it was at phenomenal levels. The end result failed to impress many and the popular cry of "George Lucas raped my childhood" was etched into 'geek' vernacular.
Just as George Lucas lost sight of special effects being a tool, one part of the complex equation that results in a great film, so has James Cameron, with his equally hyped return to the big screen, 12 years after cementing his place in the history. Like "The Phantom Menace" before it, "Avatar" is a visual delight, but the story built around the effects, isn't just sub-par, it's worn out.
Let me be up front, I'm glad I saw "Avatar" and I wouldn't dare tell anyone to not see it. The visual look of the film that Cameron has crafted is absolutely amazing and near flawless. The bar for CGI creations in all categories, hasn't been raised, it's been sent into orbit. Aside from the obvious, mythical creatures, geographic wonders, vehicles, and characters, there are many creations in Avatar that I couldn't say with 100% certainty are real or CGI, and in many of the former cases, only common sense tells me they only exist in a computer. The visual splendor of "Avatar" is only enhanced by the 3D presentation. Cameron's use of 3D as a tool brings you into the film like no other 3D film I've seen before. Holographic displays come to life in the hands of characters, who themselves, have amazing spatial depth. This is not a gimmick, despite a few hard to resist, gimmicky shots (arrows pointed at the screen, bullets shot at the audience, etc); this is how "Avatar" demands to be seen.
For the first 30 minutes, I bought into Cameron's vision 100%, I was stunned every time the film's protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) experienced something new, from a tour of the hangar featuring the most badass mech suits I've seen ever, to his first "test run" of his new Avatar body. However, once this initial sense of wonder soaked in and the world of Avatar became second nature, the story Cameron seems to have built around his wonderful effects, just falls apart at the seams.
I'd say most curious parties who had read into any of the hype knew the story wasn't supposed to bring anything to the table, but that doesn't excuse the tired, genre "greatest hits" effort that is supposed to keep viewers invested emotionally for the film's 161 minute run time. Jake Sully uses his Avatar to infiltrate the alien race that inhabits the world of Pandora (although the film makes it clear Pandora is a moon, but I won't be that picky), the Na'vi. He is cautiously given the chance to prove himself worthy of a place in the tribe and it falls on the shoulders of Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), daughter of the tribal chief, Eytucan (Wes Studi) and spiritual leader, Mo'at (CCH Pounder). Sully undergoes more than a few mini montages of training, from basic movement amongst Pandora's trees, to learning to use a bow and arrow. Naturally, he begins to develop feelings for Neytiri. Yes, what you've heard whispered is true; "Avatar" is "Dances with Wolves" in space. Cameron doesn't stop their; to really tear at the heartstrings of audiences, the Native American spiritual bond to nature is made literal, as the Na'vi have the ability to physically "plug in" to the flora and fauna of Pandora, making the assaults on their world by RDA mercenary, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) especially heinous.
This leads me to my second biggest complaint about the story; shallow characters. Arguably the most strongly written character in the movie is Neytiri and there are many honest moments where it is easy to empathize with her. While her emotional conflicts might not be original, Zoë Saldaña is amazing acting through motion capture and vocally. Especially impressive is the emotion all the actors playing the Na'vi convey, despite delivering much of their dialogue through a subtitled, seemingly well-crafted fictional language. It's a shame the story of Jake and Neytiri isn't more original, but at least they aren't as shallow as the human characters.
Sigourney Weaver is fine as the peace-loving, scientist who has the strongest emotional connection to the world of Pandora, but her motivations don't extend much past that. Giovanni Ribisi brings Paul Reisier's character from Cameron's "Aliens" back to life as a sleazy, money hungry corporate goon, complete with rolled up sleeves and tie. Michelle Rodriguez is shallow, but strangely likable, so Cameron deserves some credit for that. Last but not least though is the film's bad guy. Stephen Lang's portrayal of Col. Quaritch however, is so laughably one-dimensional, by the end of the film you can't help but love the guy's cartoon like xenophobia. He snarls lines (mostly clichés) without missing a beat. His character's vague allusion to our own war on terror shows is baffling to comprehend; changing them from a very blatant Native American/Western Expansion parable to a realm where I really don't wish to delve. Maybe I misunderstood Cameron's intentions with these lines, but I can't see anyway how this story ties to modern events, save for the classic demonizing of the military.
The film's action packed finale tries to make up for the tedious buildup that precedes it, but while visually astonishing, the viewer already knows which cliché's Cameron will roll out, right down to the outcome of the classic mano-a-mano showdown. If I could say one thing to make you realize how uninspired "Avatar" is, it would be that the film not once, but twice relies on a Kohlinar-like ritual, ripped straight from "Star Trek III." I would likely be kinder to "Avatar" if Cameron didn't have over a decade to work on the story. I strongly feel like most of those years were building the visuals and the story was pieced around great set pieces, pushing his filmmaking sins into the same category as Lucas' mishandling of the prequels.
"Avatar" will never leave my memory for many reasons: the disappointment of the story, the comical nature of the villain, but mostly the visuals. Cameron makes me believe Pandora exists, and while I can't say the Na'vi are the most convincing CGI creatures to it the big screen, they are in the upper echelon. "District 9's" Christopher Johnson remains the most believable CGI creation, but the end result of the Na'vi is a far cry from being "living cartoons." I do however, wonder what a director like Neill Blomkamp or Guillermo del Toro could do with a Cameron sized budget, and likewise, I'd love to see Cameron work with a del Toro caliber script and be reminded that special effects have been and always shall be, a tool.