James Cameron has never been the subtlest of filmmakers, but it seems, the longer the gaps between projects, the more deafeningly bombastic he becomes. This takes on an added dimension with Avatar, which he drenches with a new-found torrent of bruising faux-spirituality. Let’s just say the director seems engaged in an ongoing struggle between the love and peace he knows is best for the world and the militaristic belligerence that has always been his more natural predilection. There is, of course, no contest; guns and hardware always win. He even appropriates Gaia as a force likely to declare war, if the right white guy can persuade Her with sufficient conviction.
Not for Cameron the Gandhi approach of peaceful protest. If he’s going to make a film about oppressed natives, they’re going to be kick-ass oppressed natives, dammit! With a kick-ass god(dess) who can rain down the fauna of the planet on its oppressors when provoked to (benign) wrath.
The sad thing is, Cameron has set out store out before. One of his best films, the under-seen and underrated The Abyss (at least, in its extended form) also pits love against war. And, despite some over-the-top moments that are all-too de rigueur in his work, it emerges as a much more mature piece than the one he would deliver nearly 20 years later.
Much was said on the Avatar’s release about its appropriation of any number of tales where “white (American) man adopts the ways of the natives then leads them to victory”. Better known examples include The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. Avatar goes one step further by embracing the “chosen one” trope seen in Star Wars and which has seen significant over-use since gaining cachet again following The Matrix. Cameron appears content to wear his influences on his sleeve, and he’s undoubtedly an ingrained adherent to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for narrative inspiration. There’s little doubt that this, combined with his undiminished technical skills, makes the film eminently watchable in spite of its litany of problems. But the pervading feeling is that the only new thing here is the CGI (and 3D) emperor's new clothes.
He gives us a hero to root for (Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully), who struggles against set backs (his disability) and gains acceptance (by the Na’vi tribe, by Sigourney Weaver’s resistant scientist Grace), who then experiences further setbacks (that he is accused of betraying the tribe) as a prelude to his final rise to leadership (of the tribe). There’s no nuance here, but that’s how Cameron likes it. He’s proved himself critic-proof by sticking to certain tried-and-tested rules of storytelling, no matter how corny or clichéd the whole package proves to be in terms of plotting, characterisation and dialogue. It’s surely no coincidence that the flaws in his approach have become all-the-more glaring as he has attempted to stretch himself in terms of theme, be it love story (Titanic) or spiritual journey (here).
The villains are the military-industrial complex; the corporation that is strip-mining Pandora (for unobtanium, no less!) and the private (ex-military) security force that protects it. Cameron is saying something about what we’re doing (and have done) to our own planet, and our own indigenous peoples. No, really. He’s doing it in a hugely expensive movie that eats up enormous resources, while developing new technologies (the latest 3D) that require further resources. You can find the spiritual within, if only you attack it with enough hardware. Ironically, given the obvious paradoxes between what his film claims to be about and what he’s doing both in the story and in terms of making it, his villains are absurdly one-note.
Stephen Lang’s a great actor (who can forget him as Freddie Lounds in Michael Mann’s Manhunter), but there’s nothing he can do but chew the scenery with his uni-dimensional, hate-spewing Colonel Quaritch. Presumably it would take too much time for Cameron to add a touch of humanity; better to make him a flesh-and-blood Terminator (of the first film variety). Quaritch takes such groan-worthy relish in all that he does, you’re never in any danger of believing he’s real. So too Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate stooge, a strange part for an actor normally bent on behaving as peculiarly as he possibly can on screen. He’s very much sub-Paul Reiser in Aliens, making his decisions based on the bottom line, with all the amorality that comes with that.
Worthington’s fine; it’s a part where you can’t go that far wrong, and certainly the best work he’s done since he moved to Hollywood. He’s proved as difficult to cast well as his fellow countryman Eric Bana, so he’s no doubt looking forward to beginning work on the sequels. Weaver brings the film much-needed gravitas, and whenever she appears she instantly makes it seem like a more thoughtful, resonant piece of work than it is (something also true of Aliens).
In respect of the Na’vi, the best I can say is that the effects work is, by-and-large, engrossing (I well recall being distinctly unimpressed by their realisation when the first trailers arrived, and admittedly I haven't seen the film in all-consuming 3D). Zoe Saldana makes for a very sexy alien cat woman (you just know that Cameron micro-managed every pore of her blue feline form), and makes you care in spite of Neytiri being entirely rote (likewise, we meet the betrothed warrior who must tustle for leadership with Jake, the wise leaders willing to give Jake the benefit of the doubt; this is cookie-cutter characterisation, but dressed in 10-foot tall blue cat suits).
The worst I can say, in effects terms, is that this is the first Cameron film where you are conscious of an overwhelming “George Lucas factor”, where the preponderance of green screen effects work draws attention to itself and pulls you out of the experience. Cameron’s a far superior craftsman to Lucas, but that can’t prevent a sense of fatigue setting in during an extended climax. Which amounts to CGI battling CGI, much as we saw in the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix Revolutions.
A few moments made me think of The Matrix sequels, not least the whole avatar premise. That part is very well executed, and Cameron completely nails the sense of freedom Sully finds now he has legs again. But the ceremony beneath the magic tree, all writhing Na’vi, put me in mind of the Wachowskis’ “erotic” rave in The Matrix Reloaded. Add to that, a truly insipid score from James Horner, which draws on every tribal cliché in the book (and still manages to throw in his Wrath of Khan horns), and you have something that manages to patronise its audience despite (in theory) being a divorced science fiction world. Because it’s all so on-the-nose. You end up feeling like you’re watching a gung-ho action movie with the cloying sentiments of a ‘90s Disney animation. With added rhythmic transcendentalism.
The most successful film ever made? Not adjusted for inflation at any rate (for which there are no solid figures worldwide, but that also seems unlikely). It’s sad that the surer Cameron’s Midas touch becomes (lest we forget, both this and Titanic were roundly dismissed as turkeys before they set the world on fire), the more hackneyed are his movies. Free rein, unchecked by your peers, can never be a good thing; again, one need only look at the previous “king of the world”, George Lucas, to see what hubris can do. Is anyone screaming out for a sequel? Maybe they are, I’ve not noticed. One thing is certain; however much it costs and however unpersuaded the critics are, you can’t count against it becoming the new most successful film ever made.