Sometimes a movie gets swallowed up in the circumstances surrounding it. When I say that five years is a big enough cushion (and maybe it isn’t — maybe we need even more time) for me to take an honest look at James Cameron’s Avatar, I’m thinking of two things: first, of course, was the global hype that launched this movie to record-breaking profits, but second was my own experience, or lack thereof. When I first saw Avatar in the theater, I had a migraine. A couple hours into this long and loud movie, the migraine got so bad that I threw up. I managed to contain everything inside my nearly empty cup of Pepsi, which felt like an accomplishment at the time. Nevertheless, I quietly repaired to the restroom (my stomach wasn’t quite finished) and missed much of the film’s climax. All in all, I figured I owed the movie another shot, even though I hadn’t particularly liked what I’d seen. So a month later, I went again. By that time, Avatar was well on its way to overtaking Cameron’s own Titanic as the all-time box office champ. There was talk of people so enchanted by the movie that they wanted to live on Pandora. The Academy Awards were around the corner, and Avatar was in the conversation for Best Picture. Being a young cinephile, I took all this as evidence of a severe case of overrating. Thus, a movie I disliked became a movie I needed to oppose. I tossed it in the dustbin of history when no one was looking and went on my way.
Cameron may be working on a few sequels, but at this point the Avatar hype has definitely died down. Star Wars, a property that is thirty-two years older than Avatar, still commands the culture in ways that Cameron’s film clearly never will. I do get a little bit of satisfaction from this development, but never mind that. What’s really interesting is how a movie can go supernova like this. My conclusion is that Avatar, which has been compared to The Jazz Singer almost from the beginning, resembles that groundbreaking film in its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Both films are remembered more for what they started than for what they are in themselves. I’m not referring so much to the 3D — although even Jean-Luc Godard released a 3D movie this year — because if that development were analogous to synchronized sound, everything would be 3D by now. No, what Avatar really catalyzed was the transition from celluloid to digital cinema. The Chaplin-like holdouts of this era are directors like Nolan and Tarantino, but even they have to live with the fact that most theaters in this country will only project digital recreations of their films. Avatar may also be partially responsible for Hollywood’s current tentpole business model, and it’s definitely responsible for the ubiquity of motion capture technology. Quite a legacy, all told, but none of it has anything to do with the movie’s artistic merits.
So how good do I think this movie is now? Just a little more prefacing before I finally get to that. Over five years, I’ve learned a lot. My perspective has expanded. And just last month, I saw (and loved) a movie that resembles Avatar in some critical ways — that’s right, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Both are long, lavish space epics about humanity leaving a dying Earth to find a new home/new resources. Both have received a fair amount of hype and some pushback from critics. Here’s the big one, though: both appear to be blissfully unconcerned with just how easy they are to make fun of. Nolan made a movie about love conquering the space-time continuum. Cameron made an environmentalist manifesto populated with noble savages and a white savior. I can’t deny that I’m more sympathetic to Nolan than to Cameron, but it seemed right to give Avatar yet another chance, with the hope that I might even come around to liking it. If nothing else, I would know why it failed to do what Interstellar did so well.
It’s still a poor piece of storytelling. I don’t think anyone has argued for the story as one of the film’s strengths. It’s clichéd and derivative, beyond question, taking elements that were already annoying in Return of the Jedi, Dances with Wolves, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Pocahontas, etc. etc. and doing nothing new with them. More disheartening than that, however, is just how derivative it is of Cameron’s own work — Aliens especially, but more than a little Titanic as well. We’re practically dared to forget the story and just soak in the visuals. The conflicts are never compelling because the characters are all hoary stereotypes, walking around complaining about each other’s stereotypical qualities. (Scientists, soldiers, and capitalists, making feeble jokes about how nerdy, violent, and greedy they are, respectively.) Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi, representing the second and third groups, are both pretty terrible, hamming it up in a way that’s openly contemptuous of the characters they’re playing but that’s too nauseating to have much camp value. But at least they leave more of an impression than poor Sam Worthington. He plays the hero, a character with a beautiful brain and a strong heart. Or so the script needs to spell out for us, because Worthington mostly just looks dazed. The movie opens with a huge coincidence (Jake’s dead twin brother) that could have been developed into an interesting backstory but just gets things started. There’s also a potential conflict with a scientist colleague played by Joel David Moore (who, despite studying and training for years in the Avatar program, is instantly overtaken by a paraplegic Marine) that never goes anywhere. The main thrust of the story is the shifting of Jake’s allegiance from the humans to the Na’vi, which never feels like an especially difficult decision for him, let alone an inspiring one.
Now, if there’s one thing I grasp more fully today than I did five years ago, it’s that movies are more than their stories. Narrative is essential to mainstream filmmaking, of course, but it’s not the whole experience. On the other hand, my opinion of Pandora hasn’t changed that much in five years. This movie, for all the effort put into it, all the new technology employed, simply doesn’t have very much visual imagination. The lush, phosphorescent jungles, situated somewhere between Vietnam and Disneyland, are beautiful enough, in a “Best Buy showroom” kind of way. But I still find most Pandoran fauna to be pretty goofy-looking, honestly. Cameron knows how to shoot it all, at least. Every frame of this film is packed with information. It’s impressive, but I’ve never felt the immersion that so many others have. It’s just skillful fakery.
The one legitimately interesting thing about this movie also happens to be its central conceit. In The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson’s trademark line “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” became a double entendre that conveniently marked a new age in film. Similarly, the avatars in Cameron’s film signal a new era in special effects. Within the narrative, they are explicitly designed to evoke life but are in fact remote-controlled suits. The goal of animation has always been to convince us for a brief time that we’re watching real people instead of an assortment of shapes. With Avatar‘s final image — a pair of eyes opening — Cameron states that this goal has been finally attained. Real life has been breathed into the synthetic, the uncanny valley has been hurdled. In this way, the climactic fight between Jake and Quaritch represents the new, supple digital effects overcoming the old, clunky mechanical ones. It’s like the T-800 fighting the T-1000 in Terminator 2, only this time we’re supposed to be on the T-1000’s side. As with digital cinema in general, this is a move away from the physical and toward the virtual. That’s why this movie was a juggernaut. It rode in on a wave of technological developments that continues to this day. We can live on Pandora, because we can create it. Someday, we’ll be able to upload it right into our brains.