Screw the format.
Sure, I could write about this movie in two sentences; heck, I could review it in one: Avatar is underacted, over-directed, and completely lacking in subtlety.
But why stop there?
I’m certainly not saying I hated this movie. Lords know I was prepared to, but it was actually pretty entertaining, pretty good-looking—and I do enjoy the occasional popcorn movie chunk-o-cheez. And this IS a chunk-o-cheez: how about that OTT commanding officer? The Plucky, Undeveloped Latina Character Who We All Know is Going to Die a Hero? Stock stuff. And in keeping with the current blockbuster trend, just like the last over-hyped effects-laden pre-proclaimed megahit, Avatar ends in a Transformer battle (one-sided though this one is). Hey, at least Sigourney Weaver isn’t shooting the Aliens this time—heck, she IS one of the aliens! It’s not enough, and neither is even her performance; it’s obvious from Avatar’s first moments: the script and the acting need polishing.
What is polished—and all that anyone seems to really care about—are the visuals. “You’ve GOT to see Avatar on IMAX 3-D,” everyone drools. I’d prefer to have seen it in standard Real-D, where I don’t recall encountering the ghost images I saw with the huge blue-and-green IMAX glasses—which are perhaps why I was distracted enough to actually pay attention to the film as a whole.
Amazing CGI does not a good movie make—it’s but one component. Kudos to the tech team, because for most of the film, the CGI visuals are indeed just swell. They cannot, however, save Avatar from being the overwrought, over-hyped mess it is. Why does James Cameron spend so little time on the subtle, human moments, and then linger so voyeuristically long over the obvious, bombastic stuff (we get the point, already!)? The answer is simple: because he can. He’s distracted by the pricey, shiny computer graphics as well.
My challenge to Cameron is this: figure out the story you’re trying to tell (as near as I can tell, he’s going for a non-musical version of Disney’s Pocahontas), and do it with a tenth of the budget. Seriously. I think the challenge of focusing on bare-bones storytelling economics would force this filmmaker—as it has with countless others over the history of cinema—to hone in on his message, ease up on the excessiveness, and focus on art rather than pyrotechnics.
Of course, a tiny budget can also result in a sci-fi suckfest like “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” but I have more faith in Cameron than that.