The problem, Mr. Cameron…

By

Amazing. Staggering. Jaw-dropping. Groundbreaking. Revolutionary. These are all words that have been used to describe James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar. I’m a child of the Star Wars generation so I was as eager as anyone to see something so superlative that it could “change cinema forever”.

The reality is that it’s one of the most frustrating movies I’ve seen in a long time. In many ways all those adjectives people keep throwing at it are deserved, but for every moment of cinematic wonder or breathtaking beauty there’s another moment that’s hollow, wooden, corny, or ill-conceived. There’s no doubt of the movie’s visual beauty or scope but instead of a film that soars like the characters of its story, it falls to the ground in a sloppy mess that somehow manages to get back up and sputter along in spite of itself.

The problem, Mr. Cameron, is writing. This is a script that a film school drop-out could scratch up in a couple of weekends. For crying out loud, the film’s McGuffin is called “Un-obtaintium”. You heard me right. Un-obtainium! Sadly, the true unobtainable element here isn’t some rare metal, it’s depth and grace.

I simply cannot understand how or why someone would spend a decade of their lives and hundreds of millions of dollars pouring their heart and soul into a creation that is not only fundamentally flawed, but could have been easily fixed and elevated to the level of a masterwork by someone with an eye for cinematic poetry, an ear for dialogue, and a knack for sub-text.

There’s nothing wrong with the story itself here. Sure, it boils down to Dances with Blue Aliens, but that’s a solid storyline with the potential to resonate deeply with a lot of people. But even a great story needs to be written in a way that’s compelling. And a great storyteller, especially a filmmaker, has to trust his audience enough not to tell them everything.

It occurred to me while watching it that while James Cameron is brilliant at orchestrating action, he hasn’t yet in his career learned to communicate more than one thing at a time with his camera. You won’t find any mise-en-scene in a Cameron picture. You won’t hear any depth to what characters say; they say exactly what they think and if someone hasn’t said it explicitly, then instead of letting the camera do the talking (or the audience do the thinking), Cameron inserts a clunky voice-over just to make sure we understand. He assumes we are unable to interpret the images on the screen ourselves because he is himself unsure of what he is using them to tell us–unless he’s telling us about the action.

In a way, Avatar is like the malformed mirror image of a good book. With a book, the characters and the world are never seen. It’s the job of the reader’s imagination to flesh them out and make them real and the cinema of the mind will always rise to the task given it by the written word. On the other hand, in Avatar the imagination is all up on the screen just as brightly and majestically as we’d have created it in our dreams but regrettably, there’s little in the prose calling it to task.

To be fair, in the end I liked the movie, I really enjoyed it and I’d encourage people to see it (do NOT wait for the DVD.) It’s truly amazing to watch and when it’s good, when there’s action on the screen, when it’s doing something other than exposition or clunking its way through the story, it’s breathtaking. But I’m so very disappointed that I can’t say i loved it. I can’t say it moved me. It should have, I wanted it to, I tried to let it, but James Cameron is going to have to learn something of the written word and the language of cinema before he’s able to draw me along with anything other than his spectacle and action.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


18 Comments

  1. Carlen

    I too, really liked it, encourage people to see it, but can’t say that I loved it. Sums up nicely the strange recommendation that is Avatar.

  2. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Thanks for fleshing this out, Pete. I somewhat carelessly have suggested to those that ask, that Avatar’s narrative is lacking. But you correctly note that there’s nothing wrong with the story line. Though tried and true, if also a bit tired (do we really need another epic battle?), the cross-cultural story is fine.

    The problem is with the execution, and by execution I mean writing. It’s utilitarian, practical, functional, and linear; not lyrical or magical. Great writing would have elevated this film from decent, to instant classic.

    Let me also note that—though mind numbingly trite—I don’t mind it when Hollywood films attempt to be political relevant, virtually always progressively so. What I do mind is when such political “relevance” is slow-witted and simple-minded. As the screenplay lacks nuance and subtlety so does the attempt to castigate capitalism and war.

    Wow, all that’s pretty heavy this close to Christmas Day. After this, I promise to drink some eggnog and watch, It’s a Wonderful Life. Merry Christmas brothers and sisters in Christ.

  3. Laura Droege

    “In a way, Avatar is like the malformed mirror image of a good book. It’s the job of the reader’s imagination to flesh them out and make them real and the cinema of the mind will always rise to the task given it by the written word.” Great word image here, Pete.

    I’m more a reader than a movie-goer, so I probably won’t see Avatar. But I appreciate what you’re saying regarding the bad storytelling, either in a book or in a movie, and Cameron’s need to figure out the language of cinema. Maybe he needs YOU to write his next screenplay!

  4. Jud

    I was wondering how long before Avatar showed up here. And the response is no surprise; it’s about exactly how I felt leaving the theater. I can honestly say I both loved and hated this movie.

  5. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Agreed. Visually, it is stunning. Absolutely amazing. I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve never had an experience like that before in the theater. And I’d recommend it for that alone. But the story is predictable, and the dialogue is mostly mediocre with the rest being really bad. There was literally one line that I liked in the whole movie, one line that had some poetry and emotional punch to it.

    I also liked the last 20 minutes of the movie better when it was in “District 9,” but even in “District 9” that was my least favorite part of the movie. And about 30 minutes before it ended, I said to the friend I was with, “When did we sign up to watch “Transformers”?

  6. Chris Slaten

    I agree with everything that has been said so far. Engrossing visuals with a poorly told classic story line. When the military leader begins his monologue with “We’re not in Kansas anymore” I almost threw something. Bleh. Still, I enjoyed all of the satisfyingly huge arrows, flying creatures and glow in the dark plants.

    I felt a range of conflicting emotions while watching the movie in a theater that rests beside the banks of Ross’s Landing in Chattanooga, one of the starting points for the trail of tears. The movie felt a little bit like a $300 million dollar expression of guilt, which even it itself seems like something to feel guilty about.

  7. Thomas McKenzie

    @thomas

    Chris brings up the “not in Kansas anymore” line. Which brings me to the character who said it.

    The Colonel was, for me , the most interesting character in the whole film. Understand, he was entirely one dimensional. Also, he was lifted 100% from about five dozen other films. He was just a badass, nothing more and nothing less. He was as inhuman as any character in Cameron’s Terminator films. Maybe more so.

    What makes him so fascinating to me was this: is he meant to be a huge joke, is Cameron winking at the “camera”? Or is this a real attempt to mold an arch-typical villain? This is the one question I would ask Mr. Cameron. Whatever he is trying to accomplish with this character is, I expect, what he is trying to accomplish with this entire plot. Is he trying to create Star Wars, a film that is all about archetype and mythology? Or is he trying to give us a romping good time? Watching the film, I simply can’t tell what he is after. And this is why the writing ultimately fails.

    In either case, Cameron doesn’t succeed with the Colonel (as much as I liked some of his more ridiculous moments). All the characters are much more stereotypical than archetypical. If you are looking for a wink-at-the-camera romping badass for 2009, may I suggest Inglourious Basterds or Zombieland as much better examples.

    And, yes, my one minute review (which I recorded BEFORE I read Pete’s review above) is in the queue).

  8. Chris Whitler

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” (Mary Doria Russell) told this kind of story waaaaay better. Anybody read those? I loved them. What’s cooler than Jesuits in space?

    Avatar was good but, yeah, unobtainium…wow.

  9. Kyle Keating

    Nothing like a little “he become one of them to save them” plot mechanism just in time for Christmas. They’re all telling the same Story.

  10. Filipino Kid

    “But even a great story needs to be written in a way that’s compelling. And a great storyteller, especially a filmmaker, has to trust his audience enough not to tell them everything.”

    But then again Avatar is aimed at a mainstream audience. It’s aimed to the same people who gave Transformers and 2012 an A+ rating and these film makers knew mainstream audiences don’t like to think when in a movie.They like to be entertained and entertained they were indeed…

  11. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    “…these film makers knew mainstream audiences don’t like to think when in a movie.”

    I believe this line of thinking is a complete fallacy. No one creates without wanting their creation to connect on as many levels as possible. You don’t spend millions of dollars on something and think, “Oh but we don’t want the business of discerning, thoughtful people, we only want to make money off of the ‘mainstream audience’.” I’ve got a higher opinion of the ‘mainstream audience’ than that. I believe nearly everyone will prefer a thoughtfully made, deep, rich film experience to a shallow one and let’s remember that effects driven, gosh-wow-look-at-that films and deep, meaningful, well-written films are not mutually exclusive.

    Exceptions like Twilight and Transformers prove the rule for better films like The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Braveheart, Dances with Wolves and an extensive list of other classic films that Avatar would like to compete with. People go to see Transformers because they hope it will be as rich an experience as Star Wars was. Sadly, that’s not the case. Happily, though, Avatar is a near miss. It’s not a ‘bad’ film, it’s simply not a great one.

    When the creation fails to connect on more than the surface level, the “just entertainment” argument tends to rear its head in the creator’s defense. Art that falls short of the mark doesn’t need a defense, though, it needs criticism. Not mean-spirited hate-mail but a constructive illumination of what went wrong and how it could have been, or can in the future be, corrected.

  12. Jeff Cope

    My wife and I both loved Avatar. I’m a self-professed sci-fi geek, but she is not (‘though she is not opposed to it).

    I recognize the story is far from original, and the dialogue is pretty poor, but – hey – at least Edward Furlong isn’t in it! However we found ourselves connectiing with the Na’vi characters in a big way, as well as Jake and Grace.

    SPOILER ALERT

    We were both extemely moved (my wife to tears, myself nearly so) during the attack on Hometree. We felt for these characters and that is what carried us along through the story. It wasn’t a unique story, but it was THEIR story and that is why we cared about it.

    Also, for me, I loved the level of detail infused into Pandora. It was the first time in a sci-fi movie that I visited an alien world and found it to be sufficiently alien in design and concept.

  13. reli

    Should the senses compete?
    Surely, Avatar can be seen for its visuals alone? The foreign film, the scent of the green papaya, is a remarkable love story -awaking all the senses that make for a good movie, yet it never fears for its lack of a good script. One gets through most of the film before noticing this flaw- no, not here. reli

  14. Travis Prinzi

    “We’re not in kansas anymore” was a rough line, yes. I just got back from the film, and I also heard a very distinct, “We’re gonna get outta Dodge” from Grace’s mouth. Yikes.

  15. Mike

    I would pay again to watch this movie if it had no sound. Beautiful. I can only imagine how they pulled off the acting when most of it was probably done in front of a green screen?

  16. Dan

    Thanks Pete…well said and exactly what I was feeling and saying as I left the movie.

    I wasn’t finding too many other people who were saying the same thing as me so I figured I was alone. I’m glad the ‘storyline’ in movies still means something to so many here. 🙂

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