Curious to find out what all the fuss was about, I went to see Avatar last night (minus the 3D glasses, which haven’t reached Masterton). James Cameron’s sci-fi epic has already entered the record books as the fastest movie ever to pass $1 billion in box office receipts, which serves only to reinforce H L Mencken’s famous observation that no one ever went broke under-estimating public taste. I’d be astonished if I see a sillier film for the remainder of 2010, and possibly for a good many years to come.
The first third of Avatar’s 162-minute running time is not without promise. The concept is imaginative enough: an American corporation wants to extract a rare and extremely valuable mineral called unobtanium (a name that represents the high point of the film in terms of wit) from a lush but inhospitable planet called Pandora. To achieve this the corporation must either conquer Pandora’s inhabitants, a race called the Na’vi, or persuade them to move. Avatars – human-Na’vi hybrids controlled by human operators with whom they are genetically matched – are placed among the Na’vi to study them and attempt to win their co-operation. One such avatar is controlled by the main character, a former US Marine named Jake. When the Na’vi resist attempts to move them, the corporation deploys a small army of former marines to blow them sky-high. Problem is, Jake’s avatar by this time has been seduced by the Na’vi – literally and metaphorically – and takes it upon himself to lead the fight against the human intruders.
And that’s it, really. I’ve skipped the detail that occupies most of the running time, but none of it is of any consequence.
The first hour or so is made tolerably entertaining by the scale, spectacle and visual effects, which at times are arresting. But there comes a point when visual impact alone is not enough to sustain the film and the discerning viewer – well, anyone older than about 13 and of reasonable intelligence – starts to look for something a bit more substantial, such as convincing characterisation and a coherent storyline. At this stage Avatar runs out of gas and falls back on those familiar standbys of contemporary Hollywood: noise, special effects and furious pace. From about the halfway mark, the film becomes progressively more ludicrous to the point where I was frequently shaking with laughter (though trying to disguise it, since many of those around me clearly took the thing seriously). The characters are never more than cardboard cutouts, the screenplay sounds like a parody of every third-rate sci-fi movie ever made, and the acting is laughably wooden. Only Sigourney Weaver, as an idealistic scientist leading the study of the Na’vi, acquits herself with any merit. If for no other reason, she deserves our admiration for managing to keep a straight face.
Critics have interpreted Avatar as a profound political statement about rapacious American capitalism, but the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The good guys and the bad guys are conveniently identified for the benefit of the audience, just in case they don’t get it. The No 1 bad guy is a psychotic former US Marine colonel who’s so over-the-top that he makes Colonel Kilgore, the character played by Robert Duvall in the famous napalm-in-the-morning sequence in Apocalypse Now, look like the Dalai Lama. The actor who plays him, someone called Stephen Lang (never heard of him? Neither have I), would look more at home in one of those Zucker-Abraham-Zucker spoofs like Top Secret or Naked Gun.
I came away from the theatre wondering how anyone could take this nonsense seriously. But in fact Avatar has won wide critical acclaim, which leads me to wonder whether critics have been bombarded with so much mush that they are now clinically brain dead.
This hypothesis is supported by the rapturous reviews given to District 9, which many reviewers inexplicably nominated as one of the best films of 2009. Like Avatar, District 9 starts out with some promise. Its first half-hour is wickedly clever and sly, but from that point on the tone of the film changes. What starts as an intelligent and witty satire soon degenerates into just another tedious high-tech splatterfest, utterly devoid of the irony that could have been its signature.
Wellington’s Weta Digital studios had a crucial hand in both Avatar and District 9, doubtless consolidating its reputation as a world leader in technical ingenuity. But at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I wonder whether directors like Cameron and our own Peter Jackson (who produced District 9) are so transfixed by Weta-style technological wizardry that they have lost sight of the basic building blocks of a good film – namely script, story and characters.