I finally got around to seeing Avatar last night. I think just about everyone has had their say, and I do not have that much to add to the discussion, except to locate myself in it and maybe make a few rambling observations. Major Spoilers.
The visuals and the 3D tech were more impressive than I though they were going to be: I figured it would basically be like Coraline, and Beowulf and Up, but this was certainly a notch up. Everything was bright and crisp and clear; the depth of field really brought a lot, and Cameron, whatever his other faults, brought a lot to look at. The screenplay was basically solid, with introductions and call-backs -- introduce the hammerhead-rinos, bring them back; introduce how the mask works, bring it back; introduce the super-dragon, bring it back, introduce the dog monster, bring it back; introduce the magic tree, bring it back. The dialogue was less cringe-worthy than it could have been. It also had a lot of sweeping action that was also very good, pretty well choreographed and epic. The bad guy was evil in a fun way, and Sam Worthington -- who I did not realize until I got in the theatre was the guy who plays MacBeth in the 2006 Australian Machine Gun Version I show in class every term -- is basically good. Without the 3D those elements get you a C, with the 3D they will bring up to a B. As a $500,000,000 blockbuster movie, this is doing its job. It is not a work of genius, but like a well made table, it stands up. If that does not sound like much of a compliment, maybe it shouldn't, but so many blockbusters are just downright badly made -- Transformers, for example, or Phantom Menace, or the Matrix sequels -- you have to respond with some respect. In a perfect world Mission Impossible 3 and the Bourne Films maybe would not be on my list of favorite movies of all time, but I love those kinds of movies and mostly they are just done so goddamn badly you get really excited when one shows up that actually works as advertised.
The problem is that Avatar wants to bring a little more to the table -- it wants to say something about the War on Terror, and America and the environment. And this is totally fails to do, and also, in the process of so earnestly trying to say something important, destroys any of the wit or charm that would have saved it had it had nothing in particular to say. Star Trek and Iron Man were great blockbusters for this reason -- because themes of revenge or responsibility were there but no one was hitting the button on them that hard, and so they got to be primarily charming and fun. I, of course, don't really think big budget movies are really the best form in which to deliver messages -- I like the old studio mogul who said "if you want to send a message call Western Union." Dark Knight was maybe trying have an interesting idea in there, but the storytelling was so muddled that it got lost -- just as it did in Batman Begins.
What makes Avatar so aggravating is that the message is NOT muddled by the storytelling. It is just that the abstract idea in and of itself is terrible. This is why the movie generates such divided reaction. Because the story is serviceable, and visuals are amazing you can be very impressed. But because the ideas are terrible you can also dismiss the whole thing as terrible. It depends on what your value system puts more stress on -- idea or ride. You have the same problem in a lot of 24 -- the story can be very exciting but, yeah, it does seem to mostly to support torture.
I am with Neil and a lot of other people on the race stuff with the Na'vi -- they get to be the perfect "Other," variously reading as black (in the voice casting), arab (they are the insurgents protecting this natural resource the military wants), and Native American (in their respect for mother earth, with their bows and arrows, and animals and tribes, and thanking the animals they kill), and really whatever you want. And of course they are just perfect -- they live in a utopia and are everything the white men with the guns aren't (Jake even says negotiations are impossible we have nothing they want -- are they really going to leave their home for lite beer and bluejeans, Jake says). And our white guy gets the ultimate fantasy -- not only does he get to join the racial other, he also gets to be the most important one (as Neil points out, I think). It is the ultimate racial fetish, and it is bad news to fetishize "the other" in this way because it is not real -- it is a fantasy, and in the real world it is a fantasy that causes a lot of trouble. Avatar is actually a lot like 300 in the way it lays bear unconscious fantasies, except it gets to respond with the Jerry Seinfeld comment about the Chinese -- how can a comment be racist if it is a compliment? And the answer is because you are not engaging with a real person, just a projected fantasy, which no one can live up to.
This is bad but the real problem for me is that the fantasy is just silly so much of the time -- because Cameron seems to invested in it there is some very cheesy scenes, over-sincere. Even the superficial stuff is silly -- blue people riding magic dragons (you only get one and he is yours for life) I don't have a lot of patience for. And because of this sincerity to its images and ideas, the movie is completely uninterested in ironies like this is a 500,000,000 dollar technological spectacle telling us technology is bad (though to be fair Star Wars did the same thing when Luke trusts the force, rather than his fighter's computers, to take out the death star); like the fact that the Na'vi body Jake inhabits is every bit a piece of technology as the bulldozers. When at the end his Na'vi girlfriend holds his tiny human body like a baby, and it reminds us that she called him a baby several times at the beginning of the movie -- i don't think we are supposed to find this ironic, but it is, and it is pretty silly.
The issue becomes how much weight do we want to give that? How important is the message of the movie to you? How many letter grades does it loose because it can be silly? I spent most of my life loving superhero comics which are all about vigilante justice, heroes violating civil rights, spying, and punching people in the face until they do what they say. So I feel like I don't have that much of a leg to stand on the message point. So for me it gets a B- primarily because of how silly the Na'vi looked a lot of the time when we were supposed to take them seriously, as for example when the military guy asks Jake how it feels to be a race traitor and he just makes a cat sound at him. That may say more about my value system than the movie, but there you go.