The reviewer of Avatar seems honor-bound to declare which Avatar he is reviewing. Me? 2-D, no. 3-D, yes. IMAX, no. I’m in no position to gauge the differences. Viewers who opt for 2-D, and for saving a couple of bucks off the admission price, will presumably not duplicate my disorientation in the early going: the people and objects flattened out, paradoxically more two-dimensional than in 2-D, more cardboard cutout than rounded sculpture, and slotted into separate vertical planes with spaces in between, the furthest thing from lifelike, not even all that close to movielike, closer perhaps to the 19th-century toy theaters immortalized in Stevenson’s essay, “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured.” Parallel paper dolls and props and painted scenery.
This flatness, this separateness, will be less bothersome a problem later on, and for the better part of the running time, when human actors give way to cartoon characters molded and shaded into an illusion of corporality, when, in other words, live action gives way to total or preponderant computer animation. Or when you get used to it or resigned to it. But the 2-D viewer will presumably also not register the oddest 3-D effect, when English subtitles for the language spoken on the celestial body of Pandora are inserted on a plane in the middle distance between a foreground figure and an upstage figure, as if the foreground one could look down and read the subtitle himself. This effect is silly, is pretentious, is pointless, and nonetheless is fun.
Much the same could be said of the movie as a whole. Silly, pretentious, pointless, and fun is surely less than writer and director James Cameron had in mind for his first feature film since Titanic twelve years ago, purportedly ten of those years in the making, a two hour and forty-five minute “visionary” science-fiction epic that dishes up an allegory on globalism, a warm-over of the old science-versus-military debate, a dose of Noble Savage romanticism, a Capt. Smith and Pocahontas culture-clash romance, an ecological message, and a tree-felling that insistently recalls the toppling of the World Trade Center. Among other things. There appears little doubt that Cameron drew upon all his mental powers, yet happily those powers prove too feeble, too reliant on convention and stereotype, or if you wish to make it sound better, on tradition and archetype, to ruin the fun. The powers themselves, with their rumble of self-importance and their straining for significance, are part and parcel of the kitschy fun.
One thing that brings the film down to earth, or perhaps we should say down to Terra, is that the basic plotline copies closely that of the computer-animated science-fiction adventure of a little over half a year ago and a little over half the length, Battle for Terra, a terrestrial soldier siding with the extraterrestrial natives, one female native above all, in resisting the colonization of a distant planet by earthlings, i.e., alien invaders. No theft is alleged, nothing worse than conformity. There are of course individualities. The planet in Avatar, though no less fully computer-generated, contains a tropical jungle with special features such as Floating Mountains and bottomless waterfalls, a Sacred Tree with windborne seeds in the form of flying jellyfish, and a menagerie of beasties out of The Lost World, while the soldier is a paraplegic who once more can “virtually” walk and run by means of his remote hookup to a laboratory-bred replica of the twelve-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives with their panther faces and toned-up Gumby torsos.
This protagonist gives a nice big lead role to Sam Worthington, albeit often only the dubbed voice of Sam Worthington, who showed in Terminator Salvation that he was worthy of one. And Stephen Lang, with striated battle scars on his head, pumps some boiling blood into the stale role of the shoot-first military commander, a formidable antagonist, far more so than the merely obnoxious Giovanni Ribisi as a white-collar pencil neck sneering at “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Sigourney Weaver, the drowned-out voice of science and of reason, bequeaths to Lang her robotic suit of armor from the climax of Cameron’s Aliens.
But the promotional boast that all or any of this is “beyond imagination” is manifestly unfounded. If it’s on screen, it has been imagined. Manifestly. Imagined and then actualized. It is a bit of this and a bit of that (a lot, to repeat, of the aforesaid Battle for Terra, which had lain around for a couple of years prior to its release, and bits of Apocalypto, Emerald Forest, Dances with Wolves, the recent District 9, the more recent Surrogates, whatever else you please), a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from never before precisely combined body parts. Well within the realm of imagination.
Where Avatar seeks to distinguish itself is more or less where 2012, to name another piece of enjoyable juvenilia, also sought to distinguish itself: in its CGI effects. And like 2012, it actually manages to achieve some distinction. It is inarguably a visual experience, even if not inarguably a movie, but rather something “other,” something alien, something mutant, more of an extended amusement-park ride, not the proverbial thrill ride of critical blurbs but an ooh-and-ahh ride, or maybe no more than a huh-and-hmm ride. Whatever it is, it carries through to completion the common science-fiction activity of creating a new world. And it’s to its credit that it comes as close as it does to filling up the two hours or so before the shooting starts. After that, in the sound and fury of primal space opera, its distinction becomes less distinct.
I might add in parting that it’s to the credit of the coming-attractions trailer that so many of the film’s visual stimuli have been held back from public view. The moviegoer these days gets so accustomed to having an entire movie laid out for him in the trailer that he could be excused for a lack of enthusiasm over Avatar. Is that all there is? Well, no, as a matter of fact, not nearly. And even if I wouldn’t push anyone to go see it, in particular anyone above the age of twelve, I would advise him all the same not to let the trailer stop him.