These days, advancements in movie technology are inevitably accompanied by retreat in other areas, as filmmakers become so tied up in digital brushstrokes that they forget the painting. George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels are the classic example of a director stranding actors in green-screen wonderlands, and Peter Jackson turned a delicate literary device in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones into a distractingly splashy celestial waystation. Over the years, James Cameron has fared better than most in wedding cutting-edge special effects with strong, meat-and-potatoes genre storytelling, but Avatar, his supremely goofy science-fiction/action spectacular, finds him lost in a $250 million aquamarine light show. As the film’s technical marvels grow commonplace, it will look like a clunky old theme-park attraction, a Captain EO for our time.
Avatar opens with images of zero-gravity life that really do seem like something new, with astonishing depth and color that further the recent advances in 3-D. Then the banality kicks in, as Cameron introduces the cartoon world of Pandora, a lush foreign planet where humans have come in search of a precious resource called “Unobtainium.” Pandora’s indigenous peoples, the blue-skinned, peace-loving Na’vi, are naturally suspicious of these alien invaders, so the humans try to infiltrate their population with “Avatars”—genetically engineered bodies that look like Na’vi but are controlled by plugged-in users. Sam Worthington stars as one of those users, a paraplegic veteran who comes to respect the Na’vi culture and question the mission.
Look past the New Age beauty of Cameron’s Pandora—and whenever the camera swoops through its verdant, psychedelic wonders, that isn’t easy to do—and Avatar is a weak patchwork of his other films: the leaden voiceover from Terminator 2 here, the military/civilian conflict from Aliens there, even a Jack-and-Rose-style forbidden love story cued to adult-contempo soundtrack. And if that weren’t enough, Cameron tacks on ham-handed environmental messages and a one-size-fits-all anti-war metaphor that references Native Americans, Vietnam, and the current oil-fueled quagmires. In the past, charismatic actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet) have usually covered for Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter, but Worthington can do nothing to animate his stock warrior. On a story level, Cameron has invested the bare minimum necessary to call Avatar into existence, and while there’s no doubting his meticulousness, the film is more demo than drama.