For more than a year TV and theater trailers have been promising that James Cameron’s Avatar would change the way we look at movies, that its visuals would advance the art and the technology of film. No wonder the picture has broken all box-office records by earning more than a billion dollars within three weeks of its release. But has the promise been kept?

There is certainly a visual triumph to acknowledge here. Through my 3-D glasses (and by all means attend the 3-D version and not the conventional format also being shown), I found myself taking in imagery that literally deepened the innovations made by Orson Welles and his cameraman Greg Toland in 1941. The deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane gave its characters a richer, denser environment than any cast had previously enjoyed. When Welles, as Kane, stands in front of a huge fireplace in the background of one shot while his bored wife idles with a jigsaw puzzle in the foreground, husband and wife seem hundreds of feet removed from each other in their absurdly cavernous parlor, and this effect underlines her virtual imprisonment, his loneliness, and the comic monstrosity of Xanadu, the fortress-mansion. Unspoken emotions reach our minds by dazzling our eyes.

By contrast, the 3-D technology of the 1950s was gimcrack. It worked entirely by extrusion. Watch out! The witch doctor’s spear is coming right at you! Yikes! Those scissors will put out your eyes! So adventitious were those tawdry thrills that when Hitchcock mounted a good, conventional suspense play, Dial M for Murder, in 3-D, he soon realized that his movie could be re-released in standard format without any loss in entertainment value.

But Avatar, along with the new A Christmas Carol and certain other recent 3-D productions, puts 3-D on track as a mainstream and potent innovation. It doesn’t stick objects out of the screen but uses the process to make depth deeper. The world of Avatar doesn’t leap out at us; we are lured into it.

That world is the planet Pandora, rainforest-like in landscape and inhabited by Na’vi, intelligent, blue-skinned, nine-foot-high beings. In the middle of the next century, human invaders, determined to claim Pandora’s mineral resources, behave like the worst of European imperialists. If the native population can be moved away from the targeted areas, good. If not, they must be exterminated.

This invading army, though American, isn’t our government’s but a corporation’s. Science may have advanced enough to fly humans to other solar systems and equip soldiers with invincible tank-robots, but national economics back home are in a tailspin and the earth’s resources have dried up. Plus ça change...

The invaders have been equipped with more than those tanks. It seems that a certain device can transport an individual’s mind into a cloned body—an “avatar”—resembling the physique of a Na’vi. Jake Scully, a U.S. soldier who lost the use of his legs in combat and now serves with the mercenaries, is called upon to assume an avatar, mingle with the natives, and report their weaknesses to his brutal commander. If he succeeds, the corporation will pay for the high-tech operation that will end his paraplegia, something the impoverished U.S. Army can’t afford. But Scully, adopted by a Na’vi tribe and in love with its leader’s daughter, switches allegiance and leads the planet’s population in a revolt against the invaders.

The first hour or so of this two-and-half-hour movie had me hoping that I was watching a genuine popular masterpiece, something of the caliber of The Godfather or It’s a Wonderful Life. When Scully enters the Pandoran jungle, we are made to share his wonder at its strangeness. The 3-D process is crucial here, for though the planet’s landscapes and animals have been designed by Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg with gusto and attention to detail, there is no startling originality in the results because the forests are simply earth’s rainforests in floral overdrive, featuring flowers that close up at human touch and shrink back into the ground, vines that are a kudzu nightmare, and insects the size of small dogs. Similarly, the various beasts are just variations on dinosaurs and rhinos, and the flying reptiles that serve as steeds aren’t much different from our medieval dragons. But all flora and fauna are given a new allure by the 3-D perspectives achieved by Joe Letteri. Everything seems more palpable and more dangerous than what we’ve seen in other movies that depend on special effects.

And the new sense of depth gives an extra charge to the action sequences. When characters walk on narrow cliff tops over deep canyons, the drop looks vertiginous in a way never seen before. When a jungle creature chases our hero, the distance between carnivore and prey  seems measurably small.

However, when our hero makes contact with the tribe he will learn to love and respect, it is time for the movie to display not only visual flair but also some gift for characterization and what we might call mythic anthropology (think The Lord of the Rings, which had this in abundance). And it is precisely at this point that Avatar not only sags but positively rots. The Na’vi aren’t given any range of emotion, any humor, spontaneity, or flaws, but they perpetually exude an aura of noble-savage holiness. Worse, they are escapees from other movies: Disney’s Pocahontas (for what is Scully’s lady love but the famous savior of John Smith, and what is her father Eytukan but a blue-colored version of Chief Powhatan?), Dances with Wolves, A Man Called Horse, The Last Samurai, The Emerald Forest, Broken Arrow, and probably a score of others you’ve seen. They all share the same basic scenario: well-meaning but raw young white male meets fierce but ecologically wise tribe; recognizes the justice of their resistance to so-called civilization; wins their grudging respect and is adopted by them; falls in love with the tribe’s princess, usually with a native rival for the maiden’s hand glowering in the background; learns the wisdom, crafts, and fighting skills of his hosts; and leads the people in an uprising against the European or American land-grabbers.

Perhaps because they live and work within one of the epicenters of cutthroat (and wasteful) capitalism, Hollywood writers and directors love this story enough to tell it over and over again. It gives them everything they need to feel good about themselves: expiation (The People are right, my civilization is poison), self-righteousness (I am wise enough to renounce my civilization and fight for The People), and self-glorification (Ah, but only I, and I alone, can lead The People to victory). And there is always that great battle at the end to ensure attendance by testosterone-addled male adolescents.

But none of the movies I’ve listed above matches Avatar for thinness of characterization, predictability of plotting, and poverty of imagination. (Well, maybe Pocahontas made me groan more.) Embarrassment follows embarrassment (a nature-worshipping ceremony with the Pandorans linking arms and swaying from side to side looks like something the Esalen Institute would dream up), and cliché bumps up against cliché (there are networks of energy that glow through all living things).

So, does Avatar fulfill the promise that announced its coming? Yes. Thanks to James Cameron, this new, perfected version of 3-D is here to stay, and I expect more and more theaters will be equipped to handle the process, with TV, apparently, soon to follow. But isn’t there an older, less splashy promise that every major film makes, whatever its technological capabilities? That the movie will reach our imaginations through the eyes, stir our emotions, and remain in our memories long enough to affect our lives? I believe there is such an implicit promise, and it is one that Avatar fails to keep. Because of its technical innovation and financial success, even critics who resisted Titanic are now willing to proclaim Cameron a great director. For me, he remains strictly a great mechanic.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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