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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.

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Comments

beszlebrox Dec. 18, 2009 @ 2:45 p.m.

Duncan, what is much more silly, juvenile, and pointless than this epic movie is me calling you a bitter satchel of skxawng penises.

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John Rubio Dec. 19, 2009 @ 7:02 a.m.

The internet . . . it seemed like such a great idea! Seems almost like communism now. No, no, not the grouchy old "fear everything with shifty eyes" judgment--just the "great in theory, bad in practice" cliche. A virtual world of information literally at your fingertips; a well of waiting education. But also a dumping site, a dungheap, a den of the failed and the foolish. A place where wisdom and wit can be published on the same page as rancor and idiocy, as in the case above. Of course, I know Shepherd is the only one actually being "published." He is the only one who's proven himself with an education and a career, with experience and talent. He's a critic and a wordsmith who has caught the eye of those who will pay you to print your words. That's what publishing is: an act of trust based on your skill, trust that your words and ideas are worth the cost of buying and printing because they will attract readers. Publishing is trust in one's brilliance.

I just thought we needed a refresher course because we're on the internet right now--a place where "publishing" has been depleted down to the denominator of merely hitting a button. Publishing is a light switch, a bomb lever, toilet flush. There's no trust when the amateur flock to blogs with the deluded notions that they are writers. There's no recognition of skill by an approved authority; just blind assumption, just a willingness to impose.

There is no trust when buffoons like "beszlebrox" post what no doubt sounded like comic genius in their minimal brains. There is only the acme of cowardice on display here. To come to a place of peaceful insight, to enter an intelligent conversation you were not invited to, and infect your ignorance. No one wants you here beszlebrox; no one thinks you're funny, except perhaps more of the unwanted. We do not trust you. We do not believe in you. Because you are a taint, a blemish, a fly in the soup. You've laid it out for us: "This is the best I can do. I can't write like what I'm childishly criticizing. I can't tell a joke. I can't make you laugh. I can't make you think. This is all I am. This poor vocabulary on a computer screen. This timid set of unclean letters. This waste."

We hear you. Now go away.

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rickeysays Dec. 19, 2009 @ 1:51 p.m.

At least his was a quick little nugget. I have to read through yours to figure out if it was worth my time. So lighten up, either in attitude or length. Your choice. (Sound of toilet flushing)

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Tonya_J Dec. 20, 2009 @ 5:44 p.m.

Duncan, really, "juvenilia"? (not to mention "silly, pretentious, and pointless". "Fun" didn't ameliorate the negative of the previous three adjectives). I've read your reviews off and on for years and I honestly have to say I don't see the joy or the power of film making when you write about it. I'm way over 12 and I found Avatar to be a transformative, totally immersive film and that is due to James Cameron's devotion to craft. And yes, he makes films, his way. He's a flawed human being but one who is uncompromising when it comes to his craft and he is well aware that spectacle is only part of what makes a film. I've read him talking about it and I admire him for thinking so.

I can't say that your review is wrong, it's your subjective viewpoint, but it saddens me that what you wrote is all you saw. Also, that what you wrote may keep people from seeing the film.

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John Rubio Dec. 21, 2009 @ 9:40 a.m.

Do you see the difference? Intelligent, well-written, competent, respectful, and still in complete disagreement. That was a splendid comment. Thank you Tonya-J. No one has a right to insist that we all agree here, either with each other or with Mr. Shepherd. And I would never insist on such a tyrannical collection of ideas. But if you are going to express your ideas, do so with courtesy and dignity--then we can engage in a thoughtful dialogue where every opinion is counted and heard. Then we can move away from shouting our snippets of offensiveness. We can stop hunting for the Spark Notes and learn something. As I've posted before, there are many sites that specialize in the childish mania of name-calling and opinion shouting. They'll be happy to have you there. But here, respect and thought are prerequisites.

And Tonya-J, though I am a great admirer of Shepherd's writing, I often find myself with your exact sentiments. My movie collection is a veritable polk-dot pattern of Shepherd's black dots, but I still appreciate his regard, and I appreciate your comment. I will be seeing "Avatar" no matter the review's conclusion, though two stars is rather high-class by Shepherd's standards.

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dakotah Dec. 21, 2009 @ 1:28 p.m.

I thought the discussion was about a movie?

Movies being fun? who would dare to attempt? this is serious business!

take a breath, buy some popcorn, get comfortable and enjoy...sheesh!

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Josh Board Dec. 21, 2009 @ 7:51 p.m.

Avatar was an amazing film. I noticed it "borrowed" from many movies. Yet, this shouldn't be a knock. Heck, Quinton Tarrinto has made a career of doing that, and gets called a genius! Even Martin Scorscee does this more often then people realize.

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rickeysays Dec. 22, 2009 @ 1:54 a.m.

John, your bloviation is matched only by your pretentiousness. It's no wonder you admire Duncan so much.

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Johann_Nick_vonStone Jan. 20, 2010 @ 5:59 p.m.

By rickeysays: "John, your bloviation is matched only by your pretentiousness. It's no wonder you admire Duncan so much."

Here I must espouse my colleague (!?) johnrubio, for whom I share the habit on the Net of griping and whining from the land of Pleonasia, so far from that elevated utopia know as Laconia. We can't all be pithy li'l princes and princesses.

I was originally going to comment here late afternoon on the 18th of December...something like: "Woodwork squeaks, and out come the freaks - out come the '300' fanboys -out come the servile 'Dark Knight'er's -and out come the 'Avatar' would-be 'Pandora' citizens." and went on to castigate the legions of what I fallaciously branded a "Mindless Mob". But then I thought better, I deleted my Cyberweb censure and went to see the Cameron opus for myself. Yea -I say unto ye all- I have been converted! I too am looking to buy real estate on 'Pandora' and go hear more about my new great passions on my Blog: http://www.Iam-so-veryboredandlonely_pleaselookatme/I-need-validation/badly.us

No, really: viva the li'l Shepherd from Kingdom Come! Hallelujah, I ain't gonna let no man stand between me and my glory! Can't you see we's dyed-in-the-wool by the bloody spirit?

Feck off, heathens.

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