James Cameron's Avatar, which features revolutionary advances in character animation and 3D filmmaking, is a movie built to awe, to wonder, to stir great emotion, to make you feel as if you just haven't lived until you've seen two ten-foot tall warrior Smurfs making out in an alien jungle that looks like it was dreamed up by Rainbow Bright and a team of acid-tripping glowworms. (And just in case you're wondering: Yes, the two digital blue lovers do eventually get it on, but that occurs mostly off screen. Perhaps there are some things that Hollywood's most lifelike 3D was simply not meant to show.)
From a technical standpoint, the movie's a genuine wonder. Arguably for the first time since filmmakers began outfitting viewers cheap glasses and claiming that a moviemaking revolution had arrived, the 3D presentation isn't a gimmick. The movie's expensively pixellated world has depth as never before; bathed in a vast array of hazy blues, it's like a living, breathing manifestation of an Eiffel 65 song. And the Na'vi, the movie's marble-skinned alien natives, are easily the most convincing humanoids ever to leap forth from a Hollywood effects house's CGI server-farm — that is, at least in terms of the way they look and move. The realism stops, however, every time they open their mouths and reveal themselves to be crude, one-dimensional native stereotypes: instinctive and animalistic purveyors of cheap mysticism and nature worship.
So despite its genuinely impressive technical innovations, Avatar isn't much a movie: Instead, Cameron's cooked up a derivative, overlong pastiche of anti-corporate clichés and quasi-mystical eco-nonsense. It's not that the film's politics make it bad, it's that even if you agree, the nearly three-hour onslaught of simplistic moralizing leaves no room for interesting twists or ambiguity in the story or characters: corporations are bad, scientists are good, natives are pure, harmony with nature is the ultimate ideal — the only suspense comes from wondering what movie Cameron will rip off next. The go-to comparison so far is Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully, and that's just about right. But Cameron rips himself off considerably as well: There are gruff marines are straight out of Aliens, stubborn science-types pulled from The Abyss, and a love-across-the-boundaries romance that echoes Titanic — only this time, it's across species rather than ship decks.
Last week, Jeffrey Wells called Avatar "the most flamboyant, costliest, grandest left-liberal super-movie anyone's ever seen," and that's true as far as it goes — but he forgot a word. It's also one of the stupidest major movies in recently memory, blithely peddling a message that its entire production process actually undermines. That Avatar's melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie's stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy. Cameron's made a movie that he intends to be epic and awesome, but the only thing that's awesome here is his total lack of self-awareness.