I woke up early on Saturday morning to see the first showing of the day of Avatar. Why so early? I love movies in the morning. There is no better way to convince your mind that you have a day off from work than to start the day off with an indulgence. Some people start with three fingers of bourbon, but those people end up in jail a lot, too. Plus, I do my best thinking in the morning, which is probably why I turned a critical eye to this movie from the start. It’s kinda sad, actually. The last movie that I enjoyed with that 5 year-old boy-style raging enthusiasm was LOTR. Avatar is similar to LOTR in many ways. James Cameron, with the creation of the planet Pandora and its inhabitants, has fashioned a richly beautiful platform from which to tell a story. Unlike LOTR, Avatar’s story is mostly devoid of substance and delivers a watered down message that is perhaps not worth the effort.
The main character, paraplegic marine Jake Scully, has been chosen to be part of a corporate and military joint project on another planet where, through the wonder of fictional technology, his mind will embody a being that is made from both human and alien DNA. I love geeks! He can then live in this body as he would live in his own skin, but for only short periods of time. Oh, and his legs work now. He is soon enough bounding around the forest with his new alien friends learning their customs and proving himself worthy of their acceptance.
Pandora and the Na’vi, the intelligent species that inhabit the planet, are Cameron’s greatest creation. This world is unlike anything ever seen before… with the exception of everything James Cameron saw while thousands of feet deep in the ocean filming his documentary “Aliens of the Deep”. The influence of that experience in this movie is very obvious. With Pandora, Cameron seems transfixed by the wonder of bioluminescence, as he has given almost all of the plants and creatures this mesmerizing quality that is common to ultra deep-sea life. I can’t help but think of the recent popularity of LED backlit computer screens right now. Huh. Cameron frames thrilling action scenes in the context of this world perfectly. There are moments such as when Jake Scully is attempting to capture a dragon-like creature that will serve as a private plane/ BFF (just go watch the movie), where all elements of good movie making are put together seamlessly and the result leaves you shaking your head not knowing whether to get up and cheer or vomit.
The story is basic good v. evil. Humans, with the exception of 5 people, are evil. They are spilling their pollution, mining for resources and exterminating whoever stands in their way, that is, after reasonable negotiations of course. Then there are the Na’vi. The Na’vi are good. They embody our ideals of love and selflessness and this is how we relate to them. They live in a utopian society, and their only perceivable desire is to follow their own traditions and protect their perfect world. How could we have a problem with that? Cameron unnecessarily spends a lot of time and dialogue spinning spiritual vagaries into the Na’vi persona. This made me scrunch my forehead together and down toward my nose, and my nose up with my bottom lip turned upward. Yeah. I’m confused too. Ultimately, the aliens in this movie where too, er, alien for me to relate to. Too perfect is a problem for me. The Na’vi lack the flaws inherent to humans. Although someone who possesses my ideals can inspire me, I can only connect to those who have similar struggles as I do. I suppose this is the role Jake Scully was supposed to fill. But his transition from “once a Marine, always a Marine” to superhero of the Na’vi was almost imperceptible. He grew a beard. Must have been a rough patch he was going through. Equally troubling, Cameron invokes our memories of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror. It’s a cheap trick to rope in some emotional buy-in.
Despite all of its flaws, Avatar is a good movie. It’s an example of why we go to the theater to see a movie, as opposed to waiting for it to arrive in our mailbox. The story may not be that compelling, yet somehow it grabs you by the brain stem and injects $500 million dollars worth of seizure-inducing exhilaration for the better part of 3 hours. Pass the lithium, please.