So. I’ve seen AVATAR. And here are a few short thoughts.
The short version? You won’t see a more spectacular film in the next twelve months. It’s sci-fi worldbuilding on a massive scale, it’s James Cameron doing SF action, and it’s CGI integrated with live action in a way that’s truly amazing, even with how much we’ve gotten used to CGI imagery in the last two decades. Cameron is used to doing game-changers, and it really does feel that (unlike Titanic, which suffered from a number of digital effects the technology simply wasn’t up to yet) this is a completely realised vision, and a very immersive world.
It’s just a pity that the Cameron of the 1980s didn’t get to play in this kind of sandbox. And it’s a pity that while it does manage to be a thrilling pulp adventure, it’s also a very, very VERY predictable pulp adventure that manages to be thrilling while only rarely moving me and involving me in the way that Cameron’s best films have.
In a way, it’s like an adaptation of a creaky fifties SF novel from a parallel universe – it’s almost a mix of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, both in a good and in a bad way (certainly, the job of the upcoming Burroughs adaptation John Carter of Mars just got 100% harder). There are bits of the film that work superbly, and there are bits that don’t – Cameron’s sledgehammer tactics from Titanic are in full force here (It’s not enough for Giovanni Ribisi to be a corporate slimeball, he’s got to be a sarcastic and racist corporate slimeball), although they’re slightly easier to cope with in an SF setting. The worldbuilding of Pandora is amazing – it’s a tremendously well-crafted, immersive environment, and Cameron working largely with WETA Digital results in some genuinely spectacular performance capture work. This is the kind of thing CGI was invented for – and unlike previous efforts it doesn’t feel like there’s a wall between the audience and the performer, particularly with Zoe Saldana as a particularly sexy Alien Warrior Princess. There’s barely an effects shot in the movie that doesn’t look good, especially once we’re in the environment of Pandora, and Cameron also directs the 3-D sensibly (aside from a couple of tiring moments, it didn’t give me eye-ache – Coraline, on the other hand, was incredibly uncomfortable for me to watch in 3-D), using it for immersion and depth. He’s still a top-notch action director, and also still has an eye for a striking image, even if he’s left subtlety a long, long way behind him.
I think it’ll play better in 2-D than other CG Performance Capture films (I’m looking at you, Beowulf), and I think the potential for the various technological breakthroughs Cameron has made here is staggering. But while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t utterly transported. I didn’t stagger in dazed shock out of the cinema, the way I did after seeing The Dark Knight in IMAX. It’s a rousing pulp adventure, but it’s the kind of film where you find yourself thinking “Hmm… I wonder if ##insert predictable plot device here## is going to happen?”, and lo and behold, within ten minutes it does. There are points where Cameron’s habit of telling us what to think (and going for two-dimensional caricatures) gets rather frustrating, and I do miss the Cameron films that gripped me consistently, that could present a character who was a military nutjob but also make him into an understandable human being (Michael Biehn in The Abyss), while Stephen Lang here simply gets to perspire and be pumped-up macho EVIL. But, if I’m going to get sledgehammer Cameron, I’d rather have him doing all-out SF epics than doomed historical romances (words cannot express how much I disliked Titanic), and as a cinematic experience, Avatar is something that needs to be seen. It just hasn’t stayed with me, and while I’d be interested to see it again, I’m not in a gigantic rush.
(As a side-note… I almost feel like Cameron works best when he’s got a female collaborator. His strongest films (at least for me) are undoubtedly The Terminator, Aliens and (despite its flaws) The Abyss (in its Director’s Cut), all of which had Gale Ann Hurd as a producer. After that (and his divorce from Hurd), Cameron served up True Lies (which is fun, but extremely dumb fun and extremely morally dubious in places) and the box office juggernaut that was Titanic, and yet I feel like his best work in the Nineties was the flawed but fascinating Strange Days, which he co-wrote the screenplay for with Jay Cocks, and which was directed by Kathryn Bigelow (with whom he also had a short-lived marriage). Avatar absolutely suffers from the same unsubtle, let-me-tell-you-what-to-think approach as Titanic- and while there are some stirring and emotional scenes in Avatar, he’s still done nothing in the last twenty years that’s gotten close to the sequence in The Abyss where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character has to allow herself to drown. It happens with directors – they peak, and then they never quite get back to their best, and while he’s still breaking new ground technically, I can’t help feeling that unless something remarkable happens, Cameron’s strongest days as a storyteller are behind him.)