'Avatar' (2009)/Written & Directed by James Cameron: Grade: D-
I know, right? Avatar. Of all the movies to talk, that absolutely nobody has ever talked about once since it came out. But when it comes to films I was so excited for, followed by an equal amount of disappointment afterwards, nothing beats this. As a kid, there was no way to escape talk about it at school, or ads for it on TV. It was unstoppable, and in fact became the highest-grossing film ever for a time, beating out Titanic (1997), which was ironically also written and directed by James Cameron. After I finally saw it on Blu-Ray, I just had this empty feeling of, "That was it?"
For anyone who somehow hasn't seen it by this point, the premise follows paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is chosen to have his consciousness transferred into the body of a Na'vi, a race of strange blue creatures on the planet known as Pandora. This way, his higher-ups figure he'll gain the natives' trust, before their homeland is demolished for the purpose of human colonization. As Jake spends more time with the Na'vi, however, and falls for a local named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he experiences a serious moral crisis.
If that premise sounds familiar, it is. This film has rightfully been compared to movies like Pocahontas (1995), Dances with Wolves (1990), and especially FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). This does nothing new in the way of plotting that movies like those didn't already do before, especially in regard to the tired White Savior trope. But that wouldn't be as much of an issue if the characters were compelling, and no one here is worth caring one iota about. Who is Jake Sully? He's a Marine soldier who had a brother, and... nah, that's about it. He's got no real passions, interests, not much development. Who is Neytiri? She's just the typical chief's daughter archetype who falls in love with the outsider hero. She has no other identity beyond that. Who are Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the representative for 'the company' (we never hear what its actual name is) and Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang), Jake's boss who's bent on wiping out the Na'vi? Nothing more than hammered-in stereotypes meant to hammer in the obvious message that 'the man' is bad for its attempts to destroy the environment for capital gain. They, shocker, also have zero depth or development, or personality. Which is a shame, because Ribisi and Lang are two of the most talented stars in the movie, talent which goes to waste here.
Oh, and let's not forget that Sigourney Weaver is in this, over twenty years after she worked with James Cameron on Aliens (1986). Apparently her character is named Dr. Grace Augustine, but I had to look that up because even she isn't given an identity or personality that stands out. She's just that employee of 'the company' that inevitably stands up against corruption later on, and aids our heroes in the third act, even (spoiler!) sacrificing herself in the process. Another great actor given nothing memorable to work with.
What I can say I admired about the film, and still admire, is its impressive technology. No movie before had quite achieved this level in terms of three-dimensional cinematography and special effects. Pandora, while not unique in its world-building, is certainly unique in how detailed its visual design is. It was hailed as a game-changer in that department when Avatar first released, and effects/filmmaking technology has continued to up its game in the years since, even while displaying zero influence in terms of story and characters. If I'd cared about anybody onscreen or what was at stake, it would've been way more thrilling.
Ultimately, this stands as not just one of the most disappointing pictures I've seen, but one of the most grossly overrated. As a fan of James Cameron, this is not his brightest moment. The technology may be remarkable, but it breaks absolutely no new ground plot-wise, and worst of all, has characters who couldn't win a personality contest against a block of wood. It fails to make me care, and therefore fails to create a rooting interest in even the well-helmed action sequences. If you haven't seen it by this point, don't. Save yourself the two hours and forty-five minutes.