James Cameron has no clothes

On almost every level, says this critic, ‘Avatar’ is a sub-prime performance

by Robert Fulford

James Cameron has no clothesNo less an eminence than Roger Ebert has identified the special status of Avatar, the most ambitious film by the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker in history, James Cameron. “It is an Event,” Ebert wrote, “one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”

No one will deny that it’s currently the subject of several million conversations, but the meaning of the Event deserves scrutiny. Is Avatar, as Cameron’s publicity implies, a gateway to the movies of the future and an affirmation of elevated spiritual values in a coarse, commercial world? Or is it the sign of an art form in grave danger of losing its heart to technique, proof of a public addiction to worn-out storytelling—and fresh evidence that North America is the first society in history that willingly pays good money to see itself depicted as essentially evil?

When a work of science fiction runs dry it becomes a minor footnote to contemporary fashions in opinion. Avatar, more than most films, drives itself into this narrative dead end. It comes across as a commercial for the Green party, a New Age hymn to pure nature, and a florid work of anti-war propaganda, a simple-minded story of an army dedicated to evil purposes fighting a nation of innocent victims.

Avatar’s future is 2154, a date presumably chosen (just a guess) as the year when the world will celebrate the 200th anniversary of James Cameron’s birth. But Americans in this world-to-come are obsessed with the subjects that fill the TV news of today. It’s remarkable that a future-minded fellow like Cameron assumes that nothing much in human consciousness will change during the next 144 years. It’s like a story invented at the time of Confederation that imagines everyone in 2010 will be worrying about the future of European royalty.

Avatar is also the perfect cinematic embodiment of anti-Americanism. It appeals to the teeming masses who may well know that corporations have made them affluent but don’t like to dwell on such an uncomfortable truth. Still, among moviemakers, a dislike of corporate power goes only so far. Apparently no one is planning to regret publicly that the huge profits from Avatar have notably buttressed the stock of its backer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

In Cameron’s script, an army of mercenaries, former U.S. Marines, have established a mission on Pandora, the lushly forested moon of a distant planet. Pandora is rich in a precious ore, “unobtanium” (and that word is as close as the movie gets to a good joke), which means to the 22nd century what oil means to the 21st. Earth lusts after it, apparently because it will solve the energy crisis.

But the most ore-rich mountain happens to be home to the peaceful, pious and ecologically intelligent Na’vi. Sigourney Weaver, the chief scientist on the U.S. mission, discovers that the mountain is also alive, just as our pagan ancestors imagined.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic war veteran with no space experience, gets chosen for the mission as a replacement for his dead twin brother. The identical DNA of a twin matters because the scientists are combining human DNA with native Pandora DNA.

This will transform Jake, temporarily, into an avatar resembling a Na’vi. When in this state he not only regains the use of his legs, he stands three metres tall and acquires almond eyes, speckled blue skin and a long ponytail. The ponytail ends in tendrils that connect him like wires to the nervous system of an animal, producing animal-Na’vi synergy. When Jake plugs his magic ponytail into the mane of one of the dragon-like flying horses that the Na’vi use for transport, Jake and animal become spiritually aligned and sail into the distance together. This is the Na’vi way: a kindly, thoughtful method of training, so much better than anything known by brutish earthlings—though before the training ends, Jake gets thrown off his steed, in a way that recalls every rodeo sequence ever shot.

Setting out on his career as a pretend Na’vi, Jake promises loyalty to his boss, the bellicose Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). While the colonel figures he’ll have to kill many natives and forcibly displace the rest, Jake favours diplomacy instead: in his Na’vi personality he’ll persuade the natives to move off the mountain in peace. But the Americans have nothing the Na’vi want, so the colonel fires up his helicopter gunships and declares war.

By then Jake has mentally transported himself to another movie—maybe Dances with Wolves (1990), with Kevin Costner adopting the ways of North American Indians under a good woman’s influence. Or perhaps he’s Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970), a white boy becoming a warrior under Chief Dan George. He could be in any of the movies that reflect the 18th-century idea of the “noble savage” associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jake goes native, as they used to say in Somerset Maugham stories about the South Pacific. Abandoning his vile fellow earthlings, he becomes a naturalized Na’vi.

To no one’s surprise he falls for the daughter of the tribal chief and she for him—another recurring classic theme, or perhaps a cliché that deserves retirement. In Cameron’s hands it feels more like a cliché.

The script defeats even Weaver, who on this occasion gives the worst performance of her career. One reason is that there’s precious little for an actor to do. Worthington, as the hero and the story’s conscience, trudges glumly through the action, emitting nothing that resembles emotion. Computerized motion-capture technique visually manipulates the images of the important actors, turning them into caricatures of themselves. That’s appropriate, since their roles are rarely more subtle than Mickey Mouse. Like purely animated drawings, Avatar characters fall from great heights or endure bone-grinding collisions, then recover in seconds.

The language of the script betrays a meagre verbal imagination. Close to the beginning the tone is set with the line, “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” as if that Wizard of Oz reference had not been worn out decades ago. The military people try to win the hearts and minds of the natives; someone speaks of applying “shock and awe” tactics and pre-emptive warfare. This jargon borrowed from the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush gives the script an air of snideness that soon grows numbing. Almost every articulated thought and phrase echoes well-worn stories from the past.

But of course Avatar speaks another language, the sophisticated idiom of special-effects cinema, the focus of Cameron’s career. This is where the budget of $250 million (give or take $50 million) was spent. It’s also the main reason a huge audience has shown up to learn what Cameron has to offer.

He uses his technological freedom to cover Pandora in his own version of Creation, but carefully avoids showing us anything too outlandish. His Cameronian world emerges as an adaptation of what earthlings know. The woolly mammoth hunted by our ancestors charges through Pandora, but it’s a woolly mammoth on steroids, bigger and fiercer. Cameron’s flying horses descend from dozens of legends. His birds are wildly exaggerated versions of ornithological specimens, his flowers grander adaptations of the specimens in a horticultural park. He borrows colours from the deep-sea flora and fauna revealed by underwater photography.

At the beginning, as Cameron takes us through a murky and mysterious rainforest, his most ingenious images are genuinely surprising. But the film runs 163 minutes, getting on for three hours, which means many special effects are repeated so often they cease to be special. There are moments when we look down a cliff into a valley that seems impossibly deep. It’s breathtaking the first time but routine the fourth.

The 3-D version has been so well promoted that we’re ready for a spectacular experience when we put on the special glasses. But 3-D proves, as it has often before, a disappointment. We seem to be looking at two different pictures, one in two dimensions, the other pasted on top. This technique has been elaborately refined over more than half a century but it remains limited in the same way that Bwana Devil (1952) was limited when a Kenyan tribesman threw a spear into the audience. The audience ducked but found the 3-D effects otherwise boring.

It’s clear that Cameron stoutly opposes war (nothing on earth or Pandora could be more obvious), but it’s hard to imagine how a film like this could possibly get along without it. A battle between the natives of Pandora and the American soldiers fills the last third of the film. It’s the hardest part to watch, an eye-straining, ear-abusing ordeal, complete with aerial dogfights that recall Top Gun and every other fighter-pilot movie. In this case, 3-D confuses more than it excites. Cameron’s inspiration fails him with his tanks and helicopters, awkward-looking contraptions. Perhaps Cameron wants to express the ugliness of American war-making, but these sequences feel more like a computer game.

Avatar has been cited as a possible winner of the Academy Award for best picture, but it’s not even the best of James Cameron’s films. On almost every level, Avatar is a sub-prime performance. His Terminator 2: Judgment Day looks like a masterpiece by comparison with Avatar. Titanic, a weepy puddle of bathos, at least offers some attractive and interesting actors, of whom Avatar has none. James Cameron exhibits remarkable talents in Avatar, but the greatest by far is his spectacular knack for generating publicity.




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James Cameron has no clothes

  1. blah blah blah blah

  2. Yes, yes, yes, the "Dances with Wolves" critical trope has been issued dozens of times. When i saw the film with my son I asked him halfway through if he remembered seeing Kevin Costner's epic. You couldn't miss it. But all stories echo if not replicate previous stories, a fact that Fulford knows all too well. As a critical approach to the film that has no traction. So the rest of Fulford's critique resides in a "National Post" ideological display. And in as much as I was duly unimpressed with the Avatar plot and its terrible dialogue (though George Lucas makes him sound like Paddy Chayevfsky) Fulford's description of the internal contradictions in the movie is as tired as Cameron's plot. Really, do you think people can't critique corporations at the sane time that they're employed by and benefit from them? If so, he doesn't get out much. And then he thinks the obvious parallels between the U.S. today and the corporate/military organization in Avatar is too what, obvious? Pointed? Unfair?

  3. I'm glad I don't have to pay to read this tripe.

    • So why do you read it anyways? Unless its the case of the answer to the old question "what kind of reader do you think I am!" We seem to have already established that, we're just haggling over the price.

  4. This comes across as jealousy almost. Cameron is the most successful film maker of all time, so he can't be doing much wrong.

  5. Why is this being published now? Avatar has kind of been out for a while now…

  6. I saw the movie, it was impressive at the beginning then it got predictable. I agree with the critics about the stilted dialogue and tired plot. I would have enjoyed a spear chucked at me.

  7. 2 months?! You waited 2 months to write a review about one of the most widely watched movies of all time? Who's left that you are trying to inform? Or are you hoping to generate your own publicity with a scathing review of an immensely popular film?

    FYI, the general consensus is that the story was intentionally watered down to help ensure a wider international audience. In the original script life on Pandora was extremely violent at times, and had such lovely images as a love-lost Avatar committing suicide by being eaten alive which in turn caused the Avatar's "driver" to go insane. Having experienced being devoured will do that to a fella.
    Would you have enjoyed that script more? Perhaps. But I suspect 20th Century Fox would not. Investing nearly half a billion (adding in advertising) on a film that could give people nightmares, and guarantee no sequels, is probably not a terribly smart thing to do.

  8. I have zero interest in seeing Avatar. That said, anyone who implies that Terminator 2 isn't a masterpiece on its own merits, not just on relative merits, shouldn't be allowed to publish movie reviews. :-)

  9. I propose a poll – sequels that were as good or better than the original. I cannot think of many, but two come to mind. Aliens and Terminator2. That makes the odds good for an improvement in Av2. If our correspondent is to be believed, it can only go up from here. There WILL be a sequel however, as sure as gravity.

  10. "It's clear that Cameron stoutly opposes war …" Right. That's why there is a Pandora warrior class, and why the Pandora clan, obvious tree huggers, never given to the archer's hunt, simply folded when it came time to defend their interests. Fulford has produced a screed is so jaundiced and cynical, so bereft of compassion, insight or understanding, he brings a new low to the long discredited attitudes of the neo-conservative.

  11. I saw Avatar on the day it opened. I was disappointed with the plot, character development, and dialogue. Yes. The animation was spectacular for the first 90 minutes and afterward I kept looking at my watch and wishing I hadn't drunk so much Coke.

  12. Reveiwing Cameron's films as you would do with "high art" is just silliness. Did you really expect anything else?? Cameron's films are purely for entertainment, spectacle and to make money. That being said I really enjoyed Avatar and my kids LOVED it.

    Cameron made this film for a target audience an it's obvious he succeeded in a massive way. People have voted with their wallets and anyone who critiques this film as "art" should really not be wasting their time sounding like a pompous buffoon.

    As they say in sports…"It is what it is."

  13. I went to see Avatar with an open mind, something this reviewer should consider.

    I could see both its triumphs and its shortcomings. Visually, it is stunning, and I can't wait to see it again. The special effects are state of the art, and the 3D is used effectively, not gratuitously. The most astonishing triumph is that Cameron quickly had me believing that the blue-skinned Na'avi were real living beings.

    The script was predictable, and the dialogue corny. Some of the casting was questionable as well. But it was no worse than a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick. It's a sci-fi action movie after all.

    Make the same movie with a better script writer and you would have a masterpiece. As it is, it is an exceptional movie, as long as you aren't a cynical, self-absorbed movie critic.

  14. Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, less "attractive and interesting"? I know skinny boys and Naomi Klein-reading 'womyn' will bitch-slap me silly for saying this, but–blue, or not–the 'Avatar' leads don't look like either weenie, or doughie… And you could've spared everyone the bad photoshop of 'the Quaker Oats guy' in undies.

  15. I haven't seen the movie, and I have no desire to. Everyone tells me, 'The graphics are spectacular!' and 'The animation is incredible!' but no one comments on the story, characters or acting. Which tells me that those aspects are not worth talking about. I can tell that, yes, it is a great success in computer graphics and animation, but for me, I need more than simple eye candy. I need something to engage me. And clearly this isn't what I'm looking for. If I want something that visually impresses me while enjoying a lovely story with interesting characters and good acting, I'll watch UP.

    Clearly, Avatar is a movie I will rent for a date. Something I don't have to pay attention to… so I can lavish it on something I really care about.

  16. I don't like his film Avatar. Sorry Mr. Cameron. Thank you for sharing this article Robert.

    • Then stop watching movies.

  17. Avatar – My dream movie and I have seen it more than 100 times. And James Cameroon my favorite.

  18. Mr Robert Fulford, why don’t u pick a camera and start making movies better them him. Sitting with Laptop & writing bullshit articles is easy. Anyone can do that. I don’t think u understand Movies. Please start watching Cartoon Channels, it’s good for u & stop writing articles in future because u r fucking asshole.

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