The Trouble with Avatar
By John H. Foote
Hollywoodnews.com: Seeing James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time was an extraordinary sensory experience, as the director put images up on the screen that truly were breathtaking and unlike anything we had seen since Star Wars (1977). In fact those images were so incredible audiences tended to overlook the obvious, and painful weaknesses in the storyline, which when seeing the film on DVD become all too apparent. It is a classic case of style over substance, which is fast becoming the trouble with American cinema.
Where have all the stories gone?
In 1990, Kevin Costner directed Dances with Wolves (1990) a powerful and handsomely made western about a Civil War hero given any post he wants after an act of madness turns into an act of heroism. He chooses the prairie, wanting to see it all before its gone, knowing the whites are coming and coming in massive numbers. There alone, he finds homself befriended by the Native American Indians, thought to be savages, who are camped close by. Initially it is a tentative relationship that blossoms into a deep love and friendship, so much so that he becomes one of their tribe, a most loved and trusted member. He becomes fascinated with their discipline, their conection to the land, their lack of waste, killing animals only for food, and then using every part of the creature for something useful, be it the hide for blankets or the leather for clothing. He falls in love, sees the men as his brothers and finds a deep connection with these people.When the whites come, he chooses to side with the Natives, and becomes one with them.
You with me?
In Avatar (2009) we have a man who chooses to journey to Pandora, a five year journey he undertakes to see the universe and follow his brother’s work. There he encounters the natives, who are connected to the land and creatures, and not at all the savages he has been told they are. He connects with them, falls in love and when the humans move in and declare war he sides with the aliens and is one with them.
Still with me?
Cameron has never been an original writer, the screenplay for Titanic (1997) was terrible, though the visuals were astonishing. He reminds me a great deal of Cecil B. Demille, a showman more than a filmmaker.
Demille could fill the screen with spectacle and stunning images such as the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), but the storytelling was always suspect. Same as Cameron, remarkable visuals, but the story is almost weak.
So the right film won the Oscar for Best Picture, and those who think Avatar should have won are dead wrong. Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) is a work of art, and demands to be seen. Avatar does too, but for pure enjoyment, nothing else.
It’s a good movie…not a great one.
John H. Foote
Film Critic/ Historian