If there was an Oscar nominated film that was the worst candidate to watch at home rather than in the theater in 2009, Avatar may well be it. When it was in theaters it was a sensation, quickly breaking box office records (assisted, no doubt, by the fact that box office receipts are never adjusted for inflation and by the extra cost of tickets to see it in 3-D or IMAX), and racking up ludicrously over-the-top articles about viewers who felt suicidal at the thought that they could never visit Pandora, the lush alien world of the film. A vocal minority derided the film’s dialogue and plot, praising only the state-of-the-art digital effects and director James Cameron’s (The Terminator) gift for creating memorable set pieces. If there really were amazing set-pieces and scenery-worth-dying for in the film, it cannot be appreciated on the small screen on DVD (maybe on Blu-Ray?)-in this environment, the only thing overwhelming about Avatar is the film’s desperate lack of subtlety, far outstripping that seen in all but the worst (Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, yes, I’m looking at you) event films.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) signs up with the Company (Alien reference-get used to it, there are many) to take his dead twin brother’s place in the science mission on Pandora, a planet six years travel from Earth. Pandora is an incredibly rich source of Unobtanium (no, really) which the Company seeks to mine with minimal bad press about their treatment of the natives, the N’avi. The Na’vi are 12 foot tall blue tiger people whose culture is a mix of Earth pre-industrial cultures, with a little Maasai here, a little Plains Indians there, and a lot of Hollywood “noble savages” shorthand. The science mission is an adjunct to the Company’s real mission, an attempt to placate the locals who’s enormous home tree just happens to sit on an enormous deposit of Unobtainum. Founded by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, The Deal of the Century), the science team uses avatars made of human and N’avi genetic material to try to learn about their culture, learn to communicate, and gain their trust. The Company recruits Jake because he is the only person who can operate his brother’s avatar.
There’s just one problem with Jake joining the scientists: he’s a paraplegic war vet jarhead, not a scientist. While this angers Dr. Augustine, the head of security, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Tombstone), couldn’t be happier, because he now has an inside man to feed him intelligence for what he sees as the inevitable confrontation. Jake quickly takes to being an avatar jockey, and because he’s a “warrior” and not a “limp dick scientist” (Quaritch’s word, but Cameron clearly agrees and buys into the “scientists are unmanly and can’t see the forest for the trees, but men-of-action are special” meme) means he is the first member of the team fully accepted into the tribe. After Jake gets lost one night and has a meet-cute with Princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Pirates of the Caribbean), Neytiri is conveniently assigned to teach him the N’avi ways. Jake learns fast and sees the wisdom of the N’avi ways (basic New Age bullshit about “seeing” and opening your eyes, and appreciating nature while taking what you need from it), but not before his intelligence, and the fact that humans have nothing the N’avi want, leads to Quaritch’s final confrontation. Jake, after wooing the beautiful noble savage princess and besting the tribe’s best warrior, must become a Messianic leader for the N’avi who will lead them to victory over the Earth invaders.
Avatar is, essentially, 19th century and early 20th century space opera/”lone white man becomes the leader of an alien planet” clichés recycled and married to Cameron’s shallow, Hollywood-style environmentalist/leftist views and one of those Discovery channel “documentaries” with animals of a future that might be. There is almost nothing you haven’t seen before in this film, and that includes the supposedly amazing scenery, which is boils down to “what if we jammed together the rain forest and the ocean?” On the small screen, the film’s groundbreaking special effects just look like really well made versions of effects we’ve seen countless times in modern blockbusters, with the extended CG-only sequences making one wonder if the film’s leaden symbolism and terrible, lazy characters and dialogue wouldn’t work better in an allegorical animated film. The film essentially depicts an online gamer’s dream, where players jack into fantastic animal bodies and roam around an impossible world, but then goes one better by making the planet Pandora itself a giant internet, with plants holding N’avi memories and ancestors and animals that the N’avi can literally plug into. The film is too long by at least an hour, and feels that way, and, while, yes, the last battle is a feast for the eyes, it would probably be more enjoyable as the video game it so greatly resembles. The acting isn’t even worth mentioning, as it is secondary to the effects, and no one stands out. The fact that Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time, will spawn countless sequels and imitations, is the worst part of it all, with the films many non-technical Oscar noms (James Horner’s millionth variation of the Battle Beyond the Stars sdtk? Really?) adding insult to injury. If you haven’t seen Avatar yet, don’t.