I approached Avatar not only with skepticism, but with a certain amount of hostility. As pretty as the movie was, one could tell exactly what the plot was going to be just from the previews. It’s a tired, tired story that’s shown up in Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and, to some extent, District 9. Namely, a guy who is first pitched against an indigenous population joins their ranks, becomes their leader, and leads them in battle against his former comrades. (This excellent blog post talks about how steeped in white guilt this whole narrative is.)
Avatar’s story, sadly, is utterly predictable. At no point did I feel myself especially involved in it, or doubt how the movie would end. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character (whose Stanford tank top and attempts at empathy with the indigenous population recall Peace Corps volunteers) none of the characters were worth caring for. The soldiers were soldiers I had seen before, and the Na’vi familiar noble savages. The main character was far too much of an empty suit for me to care about him.
Fortunately, the movie is massively pretty. The animals and plants of Pandora abound in hallucinogenic beauty, trees and vines shimmering with a view that makes you realize what an amazing phenomena bioluminescence is. The scenes of the Na’vi riding through floating mountains on hippie-colored pterodactyl-dragons are amazing and exhilarating, and I confessed smiling immensely during the movie’s wholly satisfying climactic battle scene. Mech walkers, hover planes, guns, arrows, and exotic alien beasts all assembled to kill each other in what is probably the best action sequence in theaters right now. But, I don’t think it was enough.
Avatar has grand ambitions. It is clear that Cameron longs for it to be mentioned alongside Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, and The Matrix in the pantheon of great blockbuster SF movies. Because of its amazing visuals, it perhaps has a place, but it has no Han Solo or Obi-Wan, nothing as terrifyingly iconic as an Alien chestburster, no quandaries about reality or thought. As much as I enjoyed it’s action sequences and set pieces, I still wanted more. I enjoyed it, but do not admire it. It has beauty, that is all, and beauty alone is never enough.