Empty Shells

Avatar is fine for what it is, but watching it just made me kind of sad and disillusioned about the creative process.

Seats for the IMAX 3D version of Avatar were made of unobtanium, apparently, so we had to settle for the old-school regular 3D version, and we liked it that way. Well, more or less. Before the movie, there was a trailer for the Clash of the Titans remake which looks ridiculous but will probably make hundreds of millions, and there was Terminator Salvation, and now Avatar, which teaches us one thing: if you’re an actor, you need to get Sam Worthington’s agent.

As for the movie itself: what do you say about a movie that everybody in the United States has already seen? (I’ll save the spoilers for later, all the same). It’s extremely pretty, it’s almost three hours but just feels like two and change, it’s got the big action climax as required by the movie blockbuster by-laws, and it doesn’t do anything badly. There are plenty of critics eager to give it rave reviews. It’s got all the marketability of Titanic while being a just plain better movie than Titanic (and no Celine Dion). The effects are at least as impressive as The Phantom Menace, but nobody ever once mentions trade agreements (and no Jar Jar). What could possibly be the problem?

For me, the problem is that the movie just feels hollow. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work in the service of something that’s technically perfect but ultimately meaningless. It’s too smart to be mocked, but it doesn’t come across as clever. It’s too strident in its message to be called mindless, but the message is too bland and inoffensive to be challenging. It’s got too much of James Cameron’s imprint to be accused of design-by-committee, but still feels too formulaic to feel like one man’s vision. It ultimately seems like all the rough edges were sanded down and polished to a sheen — but it exudes competence instead of imagination.

The reviewers calling it the most beautiful film they’ve seen in years, or saying that seeing it was as extraordinary as seeing Star Wars for the first time, or refer to it as the end of our moviegoing life as we know it: I have to conclude that they’ve never played World of Warcraft or Halo. (Considering that I’m paraphrasing the Times, the New Yorker, and Roger Ebert, that’s a safe bet). Because in the entire two hours and forty minutes, there was exactly one moment that felt like something I hadn’t seen before, several times over. (For the curious: that moment was towards the end, where Sully’s girlfriend-mate holds his human body for the first time).

The rest of it is Covenant homeworld crossed with the Night Elves’ kingdom. I’ve always had a serious case of The Emperor’s New Clothes about the Matrix movies, but even I would have to concede that there’s plenty of novel and memorable imagery in those, stuff I’d never seen before. It was telling, I thought, that the poster for Avatar described it as being “From the creator of Titanic” instead of “From the creator of Aliens,” since this is squarely in the realm of The Abyss & Titanic: James Cameron movie product designed to make hundreds of millions of dollars, instead of movies designed to tell such imaginative and tightly-made stories that they can’t help but make hundreds of millions of dollars. And even The Abyss had the water alien that makes Mastrontonio faces, and Titanic had the memorable sequence where the ship breaks in half and goes vertical. I can’t think of any visual in Avatar that could compare.

To explain what’s actually wrong with the movie requires spoilers in case you’re a statistical anomaly and haven’t seen it:

For starters: I won’t make fun of unobtanium, because it was used exactly how it was supposed to be used. It’s a MacGuffin and the movie acknowledges it as such. The name is actually one of the few bits of real cleverness in the script.

I’ve seen plenty of comparisons to Dances With Wolves. And maybe the tall braided blue panther people would be novel if I hadn’t seen aliens-as-Indians done before in dozens of videogames. The biggest problem I had with Dances With Wolves (apart from its dullness) was the clumsy message mongering. A supposedly rousing scene of the noble Indians hunting buffalo is immediately followed by a supposedly harrowing scene of the evil Americans slaughtering buffalo. I understood what the movie was trying to show: one is living with the land, while the other is exploiting it. The problem is that distinctions like that don’t work in movies that are this blatantly manipulative: they were both filmed in pretty much the exactly same way and showed characters doing exactly the same thing; the only difference was choice of music. Ultimately, the message was that the natives live with the Earth in a way that the White Man just doesn’t get. But our heroes are one of the whitest of white men, Kevin Costner, and Mary McDonnell giving up her hairstylist.

Avatar has even less subtlety than Dances With Wolves: the Na’vi are physically connected to their animals and their plants. What’s more, they repeatedly show Na’vi thanking the animals they kill, or condemning killing animals as “This is Bad Thing!” to make absolutely certain that the audience gets it. But as blatant and manipulative as it is, the message is still muddled: the Na’vi supposedly have everything figured out — right down to an all-natural version of the Avatar technology that works except when you’re Sigourney Weaver — but the one who comes in and leads The People to almost-kind-of victory is not just a white dude, and not just a paraplegic white dude, but an ex-Marine: one of the bad guys! He’s basically a guy who just lucks into being The Chosen One.

His only real achievement in the whole movie is taming/bonding with one of the Big Pterodactyl monsters instead of just the little ones. Which The Na’vi have already done a few times. And which — in a movie that runs for 160 minutes — we never actually see him do.

And the movie doesn’t just crib from Dances With Wolves, but also from every other James Cameron movie. (But sadly, with Bill Paxton excised). But it somehow manages to neuter all of them, removing the aspects that worked, and using them to just further muddle its message. For instance: in Avatar, the role of Paul Reiser’s smarmy corporate executive is played by a sneering Giovanni Ribisi. But since there are no facehuggers available, Ribisi has to show he’s evil by spitting out vaguely racist comments and complaining that the Na’vi have so many sacred trees that one might as well be the other. Then we witness a horrifying scene where the evil Marine leads a crew in destroying a sacred forest and the sacred giant tree that’s home to all the Na’vi, and that’s when we know that the bad guys are really super bad guys who have done something so unconscionable there’s no turning back.

Except that that’s what they said they were going to do from the beginning; that’s what Sulley was setting up in the first place. And immediately after that tree is destroyed, the Na’vi go to another tree that we’re told is even more sacred, and a character says that if the Tree of Souls is destroyed, then all is lost. And there are tens of thousands more Na’vi in other tribes all over the planet, with other trees. It’s almost like the planet’s loaded with sacred trees, just like Smarmy Corporate Bad Guy said.

Michelle Rodriguez is playing a castrated version of Aliens‘ Vasquez, except she’s not really. Because Vasquez was the bad-ass Marine who stayed just too bad even after we stopped being annoyed by the bad-ass Marines and started rooting for them. Rodriguez’s character is just kind of bland throughout (which raises the question: why do you cast Rodriguez at all if you’re not going hot-and-bad-ass-but-abrasive?), and there’s no real attempt to make any of the Marines sympathetic, seeing as how so many of them get killed brutally and dramatically. So you have to wonder why she’s there as Marine-with-a-conscience at all — until you realize that she flies a pretty bad-ass helicopter. And for all the movie tries to show how great the Na’vi are and how they’ve got it all figured out and how great it is that nature wins: people at the movies want to see spaceships and mech suits and bombers and cool helicopters.

But what really bothers me about all this isn’t on a message level, but on a movie-making and storytelling level. It’s not that the movie isn’t politically correct enough, being inconsistent with its technology-vs-nature message, or that it repeats the imperialist theme of noble natives who are doing just fine but still need a white guy to come in and fix everything. A movie with the budget of Avatar doesn’t need to be a message movie, and a movie with effects made with such skill doesn’t need to get the message right.

What bothers me is that it’s possible to make a solid effects-heavy action movie that still gets all the thematic stuff right. Not just theoretically possible, either: James Cameron did it before. Aliens is first and foremost a suspense movie, and it’s astoundingly well structured and paced to deliver on the suspense, but it still manages to have more subtlety, nuance, and characterization than the blatantly message-driven Avatar. It has characters who don’t like each other but still work together. It has themes about motherhood and femininity and the evil-you-can-see vs the evil-that-hides, and the action and the effects don’t suffer for it.

After his string of huge hits, the King of the World should have enough control and freedom to make any movie he wanted. So why does it feel so watered down and pandering? Avatar is technically flawless and is fine as disposable entertainment. But why can’t a crowd pleaser have more life in it? Is this the ultimate end of movie-making: that the technology can advance to the point where a filmmaker has the power to show whatever he feels like showing, but the cost of that technology isn’t dollars, but imagination and novelty?