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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.