This one's worth skipping.

This one’s worth skipping.

Looks aren't everything, James.

Looks aren’t everything, James.

With the recent announcement that James Cameron is continuing the story of Avatar, whatever that means, I figured I’m done holding back when it comes to my thoughts on the 2009 spectacle that started everything. The sci-fi that set the record straight. The film that was gonna prove how awesomely awesome CGI, motion-capture and 3D could be in movies, all whilst providing us with the most cliché-ridden, been-done storyline you could feasibly think up (given that thinking is even necessary). So much for “groundbreaking”.

Jake Sully awakens in his brand new form.

Jake Sully awakens in his brand new form, with working nether regions.

On top having already been berated by many for what an unoriginal story it tells, I don’t know that Avatar did much to convince anyone that seeing films in 3D is an improvement (Life of Pi being an exception that comes to mind). What Cameron did get right was that it’s a big step in terms of mo-cap and  visual effects, but things like that are usually only cool when the movie comes out. Indeed, Avatar was quickly upstaged and today we can go see films even more gorgeous like The Jungle Book (I didn’t necessarily say they’re all good).

More on that in a bit. Before we proceed, let’s discuss the premise of it all. In the year 2154, an interplanetary mining expedition reaches the faraway world of Pandora. Its crew includes crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the dastardly Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), sassy scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and also Michelle Rodriguez as herself. Their mission to this vigorous forest moon is to harvest a rare mineral known as “unobtanium” – as in, that is the word they un-ironically use to describe it in-universe. Just so we’re clear.

First, the humans must infiltrate the natives of Pandora, a race of blue feline-humanoids known as Na’vi, which they aim to do by using so-called “avatars” that look exactly like Na’vi and can carry the consciousness of humans. Jake Sully happens to be one of the volunteers and he certainly gets to do more walking in his avatar host body.

The Na’vi are very much in tune with the nature of Pandora and as you surely know already, Sully comes to like them once he gets close enough. One of them, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) he likes a little extra. It basically escalates to a point where Sully sides with the Na’vi and their natural ways against the evil humans and their greedy ways, resulting in a climax where a military force consisting of advanced spacecraft and mech suits gets trounced by blue jungle people with arrows and sticks. Is the message clear enough yet? You’re supposed to root for the faction that likes trees, guys (no pun intended).

avatardedEssentially, we get all the story beats of Pocahontas, Atlantis, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves and Ferngully accompanied by flying scenes that looked better in How to Train Your Dragon. As all these things transpire, Cameron attempts to distract the viewer with an epical and exuberant alien world (which in itself looks somewhat derivative of the old Valérian and Laureline comics with its levitating mountains), brought to us entirely by the art of CGI. And sure enough, Pandora often does look amazing. The problem is this: we don’t care, especially not to the extent that we’re dying to see the same thing in four movies more.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying this just because I happen to think practical filmmaking typically makes for more engaging behind-the-scenes documentaries than digital (one of a million reasons The Abyss is a superior James Cameron film). It’s also because the film is so self-indulgent about its technical achievements and so gimmicky that the visual effects become its main star. It was probably like that for a long time too, explaining why the film’s actual characters and plot feel like an afterthought, carelessly copy-pasted from the script of Dances with the Last Pocalantis or what-have-you. The entire point of the film was to show Sam Worthington turn into someone else via the latest leap in technology by having him play a character that turns into someone else via the latest leap in technology; it’s literally a movie that’s only about its own effects!

avatarzanAnd no, none of this means I don’t value new breakthroughs in cinematic science. But if that’s the only thing your movie is going to be about, why not just make it a neat little short film to screen at SIGGRAPH? Why toss in a bunch of stolen plot elements and tired tropes to make it nearly 3 hours in length? You could make a heartwarming tale about a sad man with no legs getting his consciousness transferred to the body of a strange alien creature by revolutionary researchers, allowing him to play basketball with his friends and do incredible tasks! It would be over in five minutes and it would show a simple man getting to embody something more fantastic through progressive science – the perfect allegory for motion-capture technology! No overblown runtime, no on-the-nose environmental message, no ancient clichés, no recycled character tropes, no corny dialogue, and no endless show-off shots of a CG’d alien realm that will look outdated next week; only a clever and to-the-point way of showcasing what we can do with computers now.

It doesn’t really work when the rest of your movie is about how evil technology is, nor are you in an apt position to critique humanity for its corporate greed when you announce that there will soon exist five Avatar movies in the world, only because one made billions and so therefore must be great. Another reason Jim’s making so many sequels, reportedly, is to spite those who didn’t like this one. That’s our Cameron, letting his ego run rampant at the expense of his self-analysis and his not-being-a-child. Have you ever been mistaken for a man, James?

The error is that he gets too much of a free pass, usually for just making movies that “look nice”. Avatar is severely overrated by the common moviegoer and his Titanic might be too, yet that was still a good film that had more to offer than the graphics of its cruise ship. In any case, Cameron will always have those who worship him and thus encourage him to do as he pleases. I for one worship his younger self; the man who directed The Abyss, one of the most ambitious, technically impressive and gripping motion pictures I ever beheld.

I am utterly clueless as to what not one, but four sequels to this damned thing could possibly bring to the table. But if I were to guess, I think Cameron’s probably going to make each new film relate to whatever’s groundbreaking within the world of visual effects at the time of its release; then he can just slap the story of Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo on there so that it cracks 160 minutes. What a fun couple of years this will be.

2/5 whatever

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