The game is not changed.

It has, however, been gussied up. The visual effects in James Cameron’s Avatar are undeniably excellent, and his use of 3D truly sets the standard for the way this particular gimmick should be employed in the future. Cameron’s frame is deep and textured, and the CGI characters have very expressive faces and are exceptionally detailed. Cameron has taken a step forward with CGI and motion capture, but it’s simply that – a step. Not a leap. Not a revolution. A step.

This is the only advancement Cameron has made. You would think that a guy who was working on a movie for well over a decade might take some of that time to fine tune his story and characters, but it seems that Cameron only cares that his characters are three dimensional visually. And he certainly doesn’t care that his story is hackneyed, corny and trite. The reason Avatar resembles so many other movies, comics and books is because it’s almost completely generic, a total retread of overly familiar tropes, clad in a new digital skin.

You’re not supposed to care either. You’re supposed to just get swept up in the visuals and in Cameron’s strong skills as a storyteller and action director and forget that what you’re watching is something you’ve seen a hundred times before. Watching the film I got the distinct impression that Cameron wasn’t homaging his influences so much as just simply swiping them; Cameron doesn’t want to remind you of Dune, he just wants to rip it off. 

For the first hour I was on board. Avatar jumps right to the alien planet of Pandora, home of the nine foot Na’vi and the precious metal Unobtanium (honest), and it felt like Cameron was using the familiarity of his story to his advantage, cutting through the bullshit and the set up to get to something exciting and meaty. You know the basics: crippled Marine Jake Sully comes to Pandora to participate in the Avatar program, putting his human mind into a genetically modified Na’vi body so that he can interact with the natives in an environment and atmosphere that is completely hostile to humans. At first you can forgive the laughably one-dimensional baddies like the callow bureaucrat played by Giovanni Ribisi or the verging-on-parody version of the hard-ass military man played by Stephen Lang because there’s the feeling that Cameron is going big here, that these characters are just the dressing in a larger vision that uses the cliches as a springboard into something more interesting.

It’s not. What you see is what you get. This becomes almost distressingly obvious as Jake begins to go native and we spend forty minutes or so watching him learn to be a Na’vi. The native race is just a science fiction spin on the Noble Savage trope, a depressingly outdated white guilt construct that’s as reductive and destructive as the standard racist Backwards Savage trope. Except in James Cameron land, where nothing can be too on the nose, the connection between the Na’vi and their planet isn’t metaphorical or allegorical – they actually plug their fucking hair in to the ground and commune with the Mother spirit of Pandora (and in James Cameron land things can’t be too spiritual, so there’s a wonky science explanation for how this works). By about an hour and forty five minutes the realization sinks in that no new ground will be broken here and that Avatar is barreling directly where you thought it might go in the opening five minutes and that Cameron’s big statements are the kind that will resonate deeply with 12 year olds who recently discovered the ugly true story behind Thanksgiving. 

Things get better in the last bit as the movie finally moves to action mode; Cameron stages huge pixel set pieces that are thoroughly excellent in a completely emotionally detached way. I didn’t give a shit about anything I was seeing on screen beyond the simple ‘That looks cool’ reaction . It’s like a painting of cyborg dinosaurs equipped with rocket launchers and ridden by beautiful naked women: totally fucking awesome but utterly without any deeper meaning or resonance. Except it doesn’t take two plus hours to look at such a painting.

Cameron’s incredibly good at what he does, and so Avatar never even approaches the level of being a bad movie. It fluctuates from being thoroughly okay to being pretty good, but the film never really comes alive in a truly engaging way. The visuals are what catch you, not the story or the characters. If the designs of Pandora’s flora and fauna appeal to you then I imagine that Avatar could be a thrillingly immersive experience. The film often feels like an adaptation of a guidebook, dwelling on the details of the planet’s ecosystem, much of which looks like it comes from a black light poster version of a prog album cover. There are a lot of comparisons being made between Star Wars and Avatar, every single one of which is off base, but most especially those that compare the world building of Lucas and Cameron. Lucas’ world building was done in broad brush strokes, in the briefly glimpsed patrons at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Cameron’s is done in nearly scientific detail. One world builder engages your imagination to fill in the blanks, making you participate in the world he made. The other makes you feel like you’re getting a quiz at the end of the reel. And if you can’t dig the designs, like me, you’re left cold. The horses the Na’vi ride just looked like the horse Ookla the Mok rode in Thundarr the Barbarian, and the Na’vi themselves never looked anything but silly – all gangly proportions and kitten features. Your mileage obviously may vary, and at this point you’ve likely decided how you feel about these designs, even before walking into the theater. 

The cast is capable, if hamstrung by the script. I don’t understand why Sam Worthington couldn’t have just played an Australian guy, since his accent is all over the place in the movie, but he has a fierceness that works well for Jake. Zoe Saldana, playing Jake’s Na’vi girlfriend, does plenty of fine work through both a sheet of pixels and an incredibly silly made up accent. Stephen Lang – often looking bafflingly CGI despite being a real human being (is this a weird lighting thing, intended to reduce the Roger Rabbit-esque divide between the people and the toons?) – manages to make it through the entire movie with a straight face despite playing a guy who seems like he might literally eat nails. Seriously, this character is a complete joke, and Lang often feels like he’s in on it. I wonder if Cameron is. The rest of the cast does what they can – everybody is playing eighth banana to the bugs and fungi of Pandora anyway.

Those bugs and fungi are CGI creations, and they’re good ones. But they’re not the mind-blowing next level. CGI has actually been pretty good with environment creation for a while, and many films use CGI invisibly to enhance environments. You can easily forget that the lush jungle forests of Pandora aren’t just on a stage or shot on location but come from a processor. It’s the rest of the stuff – the animals and characters and mechs – that always look like they’re animated. Obviously the characters and creatures in Avatar aren’t as cartoony as the leads in the Toy Story films, but it’s the same principal in that you eventually forget that you’re looking at animated characters not because you believe them but because you accept them in context. Actually, Avatar reminds me a lot of Wall*E, a film that had nearly photoreal environments; the big difference is that Pixar stylized the characters while Weta has attempted to make Avatar‘s characters as ‘real’ as possible. But there’s never a moment when you’re watching the Na’vi or the big rhino monsters or any of the other beasts where you feel like you’re watching something physically real. What helps is that huge chunks of Avatar are completely animated (and by the way, let’s get off the idea that mocap isn’t animation. The mocap process requires tons of work from animators to create what it is that you’re watching on screen. It’s a disservice to skilled animators to pretend that the motions of the actors become what you see on screen without other intensive human intervention), so that aforementioned Roger Rabbit divide isn’t so pronounced. In fact, humans and Na’vi so rarely share the screen that at the end of the movie I nearly forgot that the aliens are almost double our height.

The most interesting thing about Avatar is its truly radical politics, all of which comes across as grossly hypocritical. The movie – the most technologically advanced film ever made, we’ve been constantly reminded – romanticizes the Stone Age Na’vi; it’s like Bill Gates telling you how good poverty is for the soul. But beyond that it’s almost John Walker Lindh In Space; we’re meant to cheer as Jake Sully doesn’t just support the Na’vi but actively takes up arms against his own people and helps kill hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s as if Dances With Wolves ended with Dunbar leading the Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn. While the film was conceived long before our current adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq Cameron makes ploddingly on the nose references to current events, having the bad humans talking about waging a ‘shock and awe’ campaign on the Na’vi and insisting they must fight terror with terror (despite the Na’vi engaging in no terror). Cameron’s idea of subtlety seems to be having Lang play Colonel Quaritch and not Colonel George Bush. Obviously taken in the context of the time Star Wars can be viewed as a pro-North Vietnamese piece, but Lucas wisely avoided naming any characters Ho Chi Minh or having Han Solo visiting the planet Tet; what would have been an otherwise arguable subtext in Avatar is blown into full on text, although I imagine it will be largely ignored by people simply being absorbed in the visuals.

Those visuals can be overpowering in 3D, which seems to be the only way to really see this film (have any critics seen the movie in 2D, a format with which a large chunk of the audience will have to make do?). Too often what is passed off for spectacle is really just incoherent noise – I’m looking at you, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - but Avatar delivers the 3D spectacle in a major way. The vistas are huge and deep and detailed, and the action becomes more engrossing in 3D; I think you probably have some kind of neurological issue if you’re trying to swat away the Pandoran flies, but if any film is going to make the argument that 3D can be used as something more than a gimmick, Cameron has delivered it. It’s the 3D that had me most skeptical, and it’s the technical aspect that most won me over; rarely are objects pointing out of the screen but rather the jungle is given a dimensionality that comes closest to truly replicating how our eyes see the world – certainly closer than the average 3D film, which reduces everything to flat objects at different depths within a diorama. It’s the 3D that makes the film a must-see in theaters; most of Avatar‘s value will be utterly lost when translated to home theaters, unless you have some kind of super new TV that does cutting edge 3D (and they’re coming).

For me the 3D wasn’t enough. The film’s not bad, and I suspect that a second viewing would reward me with some extra details (sort of a graduate level study of Pandoran ecology), but it’s nothing special. As someone left cold by the film’s designs there was no way in for me – the characters offer nothing to grab on to and the story is feeble – and so the film’s running time was mostly spent admiring the work put into everything shown on screen. The Na’vi are laughably silly, juvenile versions of Native Americans, making Jake’s journey to their side feel like the actions of a freshman who just discovered Noam Chomsky; I found that I couldn’t get behind the natives or the guy who has gone native because of how simplistic they are. Strangely I was almost rooting for the evil corporate good guys because their mustache twirling evil colonialism routine is often pretty hilarious. And the love story between Jake and Saldana’s Neytiri is so half-baked that it carries all the weight of the legendary romance of Twilight‘s Edward and Bella. From my position on the outside of this movie I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the heavy handed messages, the predictable plot points and the tiresome mysticism.

The prediction I make for Avatar is simple: this is 2009’s King Kong. It’s a movie that will dazzle many people, but in a little while – maybe months, maybe years – the consensus will slowly change. Distanced from that first spectacular 3D screening, people will begin to realize how hollow and stupid the story is, how there are no characters to care about and how ham-fisted Cameron is with his deep thoughts straight from the freshman dorm. Unlike Kong I suspect that Avatar will be somewhat watchable – Cameron does bloated better than Peter Jackson does – but removed from the big screen the film will lose all impact. 

In the meantime I’m glad for those who were able to be swept away into the over-detailed world of Pandora. I wish I had been swept away as well, but in the end I need something more than pretty pictures to grab me.

6.5 out of 10