Anticipation and surmise ran wild in the months preceding James Cameron’s $200-million 3-D science-fiction juggernaut release. A New Yorker profile suggested it would change cinematic history, like the invention of talkies. Insider Hollywood gossip was less sanguine, however. One very successful producer told me the biz buzz was referring to it as FernGully II. Let’s just say Mr. Producer was closer to the truth.
Make no mistake, though: Avatar is impressive and beautiful. For the first hour of the film, you could take any single frame, freeze it, and put it on the cover of a good science-fiction novel. The constant sweeping forward of breakneck action through surprising and luminous critters and plants should leave even stuffy moviegoers wide-eyed with delight. And though the 3-D does not feel groundbreaking or revelatory, it provides lovely grace notes-reflections on glass and falling sparks, rather than jolting spears or bullets. Cameron’s sheer concentration on the spectacle-and the skillful pacing of the thrills-makes Avatar sometimes stunning and relentlessly wondrous in the best sense of the word.
On the other hand, the story is Jar Jar Binks-stupid. Consider the McGuffin, that thing that motivates our plot. Evil earthlings arrive on planet Pandora in quest of a mineral called, unbelievably, Unobtanium. (They say this with a straight face.) Avatar is actually more like a Tarzan movie, with touches of Dune and The Lord of the Rings thrown in, than an exploration of futuristic technology. Our hero, Jake (Sam Worthington), becomes a tree-swinging Navi-lifestyle convert, and, even though he’s from another planet, soon reveals superior powers. Thus, Cameron gets it both ways: it’s anti-intergalactic colonialism, yet Jake’s superior prowess proves once again the dire need for us out there-white earthling’s burden.
But mostly Avatar is Cameron’s family movie. Compared to his past sci-fi work (The Terminator or Alien), this is gentle stuff with a major Ewok-ish battle at the end. It’s going to stick with little kids forever. Grownups might find it annoyingly simplistic, however. A rush, an epic, but at three hours, a plot too riddled with Unprofoundium.