James Cameron. On one hand: Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, T2. On the other: Titanic, Dark Angel and True Lies. Cameron has been the purveyor of excellent action and some genuinely inventive contributions to the screen, but simultaneously his characterisation and plotting has been less than stellar. Which leads neatly to Avatar. Which is complete crap.
The plot essentially involves a paraplegic ex soldier who is given the chance to transfer his consciousness into a giant blue cat. The reason behind this is that the world they are on is entirely full of giant blue cat people who happen to have their magic tree directly above a pocket of a mineral called UNOBTAINIUM. A good thing it wasn't called CATGUANIUM... Unobtanium is important because, er, it floats? That's never actually explained but it apparently costs a lot. Which is why Mankind has invented the consciousness clones to get in with the locals. At no point though do they actually discuss with the love cats ways in which they could mine the ore from UNDER the tree. Instead they send our hero, I'll call him Rumpleteaser, to infiltrate and find out their weaknesses. This he does after a brief scene from Starship Troopers.
A moment about the effects. They're fine. Lip syncing has got better than the days of Gollum, but the actual effects themselves are no more impressive. As for the much hyped world of Avatar, it is no more impressive than any of the environments created for the Star Wars prequels. The areas where the effects do impress is where the 3D helps create depth, in particular the scenes at height where you genuinely get the sense of there being one hell of a fall. Beyond that the 3D is no more impressive or not impressive than the same effect in Ice Age 3, Up or Bolt. There's too much nonsense about the film being a "game-changer". The only thing that has changed is the means by which the film is captured using new mo-cap technology and virtual cameras. This changes the way that directors can visualise the film, it does not change what appears on the screen in the same way that using a new brush does not guarantee art from the bristles.
And its a terrible shame. Every idea on show in Avatar seems borrowed. From the bad fantasy novel trapping of interconnected consciousness through a big tree to the achingly poor Native American parallels, it's all a bit too familiar. The only difference is that there's big blue cats and moss that glows when you walk on it. Even the usual Cameron high points of production design are mercilessly stolen from his other, greater works. The aircraft are incredibly similar to the drop ships from Aliens and the Armoured Suits are very reminiscent of the Cargo Loaders, also from Aliens, or indeed almost copied from the robot suits in the Matrix Revolutions. Everything has had a nice ipodesque sheen to it to bring it up to date, but unfortunately the update didn't extend to the logic behind the concepts. Firstly, why is there no bullet proof glass on ANY of the military hardware? On a planet of poisonous gas this would be quite an important consideration. But instead they went for glazing that wouldn't even repel wooden spears. The only purpose for this oversight appears to be to allow an incredibly unconvincing victory by Rumpleteaser at al. There is absolutely NO way they could win this, but they do, because it's written that way. Similarly, if I were in the army and building a giant war machine walking suit I think I'd design one with a gun or guns built into the suit as opposed to building a robot with hands that have to HOLD the gun (with both hands) making the suit utterly pointless, less adaptable and nonsensical. Again, had this been thought about the final battle would have ended with Rumpleteaser et al being mowed down in seconds as there would be no position in which the catfolk could have taken one on. But again, Cameron needed the plot to go a certain way so he just wrote crap. It also allows the final scene to consist of a man in a robot suit having a knife fight with a giant blue cat. I really haven't ever seen anything as stupid as this scene.
Cameron's convenient plotting includes the Na'vi's inexplicable belief that they can move consciousness from a human body to the clones permanently. How do they know this? How could they possibly know this?! After an embarrassing scene which recalls the underground rave in Matrix Reloaded they fail to save Sigourney Weaver, but its OK because you know it'll work in time for Rumpleteaser. There's also the absolute maximum deus ex machina (literally) moment when after Rumpleteaser talks to the magic tree the entire planet of animals all come come together to fight the foolhardy and moustache twirlingly evil humans with their single glazed cockpits. He literally asks God and God says, "Here, have some animals". Breathtakingly dumb.
It's utterly unclear what Cameron is trying to say in this film. All humans are evil? That nature always triumphs over technology? The first isn't true and the second has never been the case in ANY conflict in the history of Man. The human race is portrayed in the most one dimensional terms throughout. The General in particular could not be any more ridiculously evil had he been raping kids at knife point and drowning sackfuls of puppies. He actually utters a line at some point along the lines of "Bombing them so hard to leave behind a racial memory they'll never forget". By making the other side so unbelievable, so silly it undermines any attempt at a message. It isn't the story of Native Americans despite the blatant "the land and the people are one" message. This story ends in a twee and convenient way that just proves that the film says nothing and is about nothing.
Even though there have been other films that have had very little to say but consisted of a lot of things blowing up few have been this expensive and this hyped. The film is basically Ferngully: Last of the Rain forests channelled through the effects of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Avatar epitomises an old story. It doesn't break new ground, there are plenty of style over substance films in existence, many came out this year. But this was the most expensive film ever made (allegedly) and it is a shame that the ambition didn't match the budget. Despite the hype the film brings nothing that hasn't been seen before. From Jurassic Park to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Aliens, there's nothing new here except for the sheer amount of money thrown at it to have more of everything. The film will make a fortune of course, the child-friendly plot, hype and the inflated cost of the 3D tickets will see to that. What we need is a storytelling revolution more than we need a technological revolution, which is ironically a complete contradiction to the main thrust of Avatar.