It is a sad commentary on the state of science fiction films when a minimally competent script looks like genius compared to recent offerings. So it is with James Cameron's Avatar.
I saw it in a 3-D IMAX theater, so I got the full treatment. A sumptuous visual feast, yes. But I expected it to be. Cameron's relentless drive to the edge of the technical envelope--and beyond--is an unquestioned strength of his. The bioluminescent forest of Pandora simply dazzles. The 3-D work induces buttocks-clenching vertigo in at least one scene. And the Wizards of Weta once again work their magic, making the blue-skinned Na'vi every bit as real as Gollum. But--and here's the part that so many who are lauding the film's technical virtues seem to miss--one grows accustomed to these cinematic wonders very quickly. The effects that represent such a huge expenditure of time, money, and resources amount to very little after the first fifteen minutes or so. There must be something else going on if the film is to hold up. To his credit, I think Cameron knows this.
But for all his pioneering technical work, Cameron has never been much for pioneering or profound scripts. Ask Harlan Ellison how original The Terminator is. Aliens and Terminator 2 are both sequels. The otherworldly sea-dwellers of The Abyss, who warn mankind to straighten up and fly right or risk total annihilation, owe a large debt to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Titanic rehashes the age-old tale of star-crossed lovers.
Now, I see nothing wrong with retelling a familiar story. I've done it myself. One might wish the author had expended just a little more effort, but maybe, in this day and age, even that is asking too much. Certainly the writers of Star Trek couldn't be bothered to craft a script that made any sense. Nor did the makers of District 9, who apparently felt that the weightiness of the allegory was enough to carry the film. (It wasn't.)
So here we have Avatar, with its White-Man-Meets-Noble-Savage plotline that was old when Frank Herbert appropriated it for Dune. The script is by-the-numbers, utterly lacking in twists or surprises. Consider: The aforementioned White Man, one Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), finds himself rescued by the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who turns out to be the daughter of the Na'vi chief. Of course she is. Jake's acceptance into the tribe is opposed by the hotheaded Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso). Naturally. Jake undergoes several tests and trials to prove his worthiness, complete with montage. Check. And the principal antagonist, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the Military Man Who Just Wants To Kill Everyone. He has all the depth of cardboard. But really--did you expect otherwise?
I could go on and on, cataloging the story's deficiencies. And yet . . . and yet . . .
I can't help myself. For all its flaws, the film is--well, minimally competent. Jake Sully is given just enough depth of characterization to make his actions believable. The acting is solid. The science fictional elements--for which any reader of SF will recognize numerous antecedents--are handled with nods toward coherence and internal consistency. That's much more than I can say for Trek, District 9, and pretty much every science fiction film of the last several years. Cameron dutifully hangs pistols on the wall in the first act, and he fires them all. That you can see the ending coming half an hour before it arrives is perhaps a bit of a drag, but it's better than leaving plot holes one could pilot a starship through.
I don't know. Maybe I've been too beaten down by all the noisy nonsense of Avatar's predecessors. Or maybe it's too much to hope for a fresh counterpoint to the same old song. Maybe we should be grateful that someone out there at least still knows how to carry a tune. Cameron is showing more respect for his audience than most of his contemporaries. That should be worth something.
Let us raise a glass, then, to competence. It sure as hell beats the alternative.