Movies represent a necessary escape from the drudgery of everyday life for many people (rightfully so), and James Cameron’s uber-epic Avatar provides such a journey, jettisoning the viewer through an exotic, technologically enhanced frontier with stupendous visual appeal. So it’s not surprising Cameron’s long awaited return to feature filmmaking now seems too big to fail, a box office maven destroying records and expectations simultaneously. This has mostly to do with Cameron’s 3-D technology, which constructs a dynamic world of great comprehensiveness, intricately detailing colorful flora and fauna and expanding the horizon with elaborate action scenes. In short, the Pandoran landscape consistently exudes a breathtaking sense of place, brimming with possibility and danger.
But such aesthetic splendor can invariably cloud a viewer’s judgement to the smaller issues (in Cameron’s mind) of character, context, and that evil bastard known as subtext. In the case of Avatar, these defects turn out to be completely damning. Cameron’s brawn over brains approach assigns phantom weight to a story bloated by cliche, characters anchored by convention, and a mythology flaunting the simplicities of Native American culture. The problems begin and end with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the tenacious paraplegic Marine at the center of Avatar. Sully acts and reacts without much thought for the big picture, even when fighting in the name of the native Na’vi people who are being hunted and displaced by the evil corporation mining their native planet. Excusing him as a dumb jarhead doesn’t cut it, especially with so much thematic baggage on the line.
To speak ill of Avatar seems indicative of screaming into the wind, but the film deserves more attention than defensive celebration or complete dismissal. It’s become the movie of the moment, and like it or not, Cameron has achieved something completely singular in terms of cinematic artistry. As a pop filmmaker, Cameron magically seduces us with his sly mixture of familiar tones and mind-blowing scope, a decisive combo impossible to ignore and far too easy to forgive.