It’s probably too much to ask that the script for a film like Avatar be as extraordinary as its visuals. Avatar is visually stunning; the 3D is seamless — Cameron doesn’t do what most directors do and throw a bunch of things at you, which can ruin the sense of realism. The colors are brilliant. The world is scrupulously drawn. You feel transported. I basically forgot the whole thing was CGI.
Will it do well? I’m not sure! Certainly Titanic burned slowly, amassing solid numbers for months (remember it opened at a mere $28 million, and went on to gross 20 times that domestically, then double that internationally.) It’s all going to depend on word of mouth. My midnight screening was overwhelmingly male — and immature, laughing at every sentimental moment — though they loved it in the end. The film has work to do with women. And the sticker price doesn’t help.
What about the writing though?
Dialogue: It isn’t the sharpest. Cameron uses a vlog motif — Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) narrates the first half through videotaped diaries. It’s an old narrative trick I found particularly unworthy of a film of this caliber. Some of the lines are less than inspired. Good dialogue is rare in sci-fi.
Colonialism: All the classic dynamics are here. The natives don’t wear clothes and are tied to the “earth” (actually Pandora) — literally. The white people have guns. The want to dominate and destroy the land, and they don’t care about the native culture. I found myself wondering why the natives had to be so “native-y,” though I applaud Cameron for making them rounded enough to not be stereotypical or grating. That’s hard to do.
Technology: Avatar tries to upset these cliché through the “avatar” motif. Scully can transport himself into a native through a fancy machine. It’s a shame Avatar came out the same year as District 9, which basically did the same thing. Either way, the techno story is a good addition to the narrative. It leads to some interesting, if well-tread, places, particularly in conjunction with the film’s themes on ethnicity and cultural difference.
Cross-Racial Unity: I tend to like narratives of cross-racial (here, cross species) understanding. In Avatar, Cameron tries to imagine how the “oppressor” could understand and align with the “oppressed.” It largely succeeds on this note, though I didn’t feel terribly blown away by it — the love story is nice. It seems to me this is the central question of Avatar, which why I’m surprised most people are focusing on the environmental aspects.
Environmentalism: I guess it’s the climate change talks occurring right now in Europe. Either way, the environmentalist narrative here is pretty strong, a Tolkienesque motif of nature v. machine (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where the Ents battle Saruman). Anyway, in Cameron’s universe all living things are connected — can literally connect biologically to one another — so cutting down one tree hurts everything. It’s an appealing and potentially potent idea.
All in all, I found myself more in awe than in love, but I suppose that is to be expected. Even in Titanic, a more heartwarming film, cinematic grandeur chips away at its emotional core. I certainly enjoyed spending time in Cameron’s world, lush and magical as it was. The virtuoso Avatar didn’t win my head or my heart, but earned my respect, while capturing a bit of my imagination and sense of idealism. That’s enough.