Sometimes you have to humor the ones you love, even if it involves a sacrifice of your time and energy that you would rather not make. Such dedication is an integral component of what it means to be family (or even true friends). So when Dad started mentioning several weeks ago that he wanted to see Avatar, I knew that eventually, I would have to humor him. The film did not seem like my cup of tea in any way: my interest in science fiction does not extend much beyond the Star Trek franchise, I dislike fantasy in general as a genre, I tend to avoid blockbuster action films in favor of well-acted dramas or escapist romantic comedies, and I actually somewhat dislike the contemporary over-reliance on special effects and computer generated material in general. But, because Dad wanted so much to see for himself what James Cameron managed to spend a reported 500 million dollars on, I sucked it up and went with him.
I wish I could say that I was pleasantly surprised, but I was not. Yes, the movie was visually stunning. The special effects are revolutionary. But if the entire appeal of the film is visual, I could have stood to be visually absorbed in the world of Pandora for about an hour less. If the plot, the characters, and the dialogue had been stronger, I might have better withstood the nearly three hour run time, but I found myself distracted by their ridiculousness instead, and was checking my watch after about the first hour.
Other than the technology used to create the film, Avatar offers nothing new. At no point, was I in doubt over what was going to happen next. It felt like somewhat of a pastiche of earlier films. For example, the helicopters raining down destruction from the sky on less technologically advanced natives felt very much like a Vietnam-era film to me, a perception that was heightened by the film's principle villain, who could have been the twin of Apocalypse Now's Lt. Col. Kilgore. I was almost waiting for him to make an utterance somewhere along the line of Kilgore's famous quote, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning... it smells like victory." Plus, Avatar's villain seemed almost entirely lacking in clearly-articulated motivation. Why was he so intent on slaughtering the Na'vi? Why the wholesale rejection of diplomacy? Just because he's a career military man? That seems a little too obvious. Clearly, that $500 million investment did not include decent scriptwriting. The controversial "shock-and-awe" campaign included in the film could very well be a metaphor for Avatar itself: the movie seeks to awe you and overload your senses with special effects so that you remain blind to the predictability and generic quality of the plot.
Furthermore, I found the movie entirely too preachy. If I wanted to spend three hours being beat over the head with a environmentalist, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist message, I would rather go see a Michael Moore documentary. At least he's unapologetic about his beliefs. It's somewhat difficult to buy the same message coming from Avatar, a major studio picture with a litany of corporate investors brought in to defray the film's massive production costs.
As we were leaving the theater, I couldn't help but draw a comparison between seeing Avatar for the first time, and re-watching Titanic (Cameron's last blockbuster) last year. When I first saw Titanic in middle school, my tastes were less sophisticated than they are now. I was taken with the glamor of the world that Cameron recreated in the film, and impressed with the special effects used to recreate the sinking of the ship. As an adult, I found myself laughing at the stilted dialogue and resultant poor acting, especially now that the technology that created Titanic's special effects is over a decade out of date. I hypothesize that if I had seen Avatar at an earlier time in my life, I might have enjoyed it more.
Such is my problem with movies that depend on computer-generated special effects -- they do not age well. Look at the "classic" films that have stood the test of time, like Casablanca or even The Godfather. Those films have very little in the way of special effects, but their engaging stories and superb acting are timeless. Will people reflect on Avatar in quite the same way 30, or 70 years from now? I think not.