Much to-do has been made of Avatar: the hundreds of millions spent on it, the advances in digital and 3-D technologies it represents and the fact that James Cameron has taken another Titanic-style risk with his career. It has even become a talking point for right-wing pundits. However, no matter how much ink and blogspace is spilled on Avatar coverage, they all forget one crucial thing: this is the biggest schlock movie ever made.
Think about it: multi-hundred-million dollar shooting and marketing budgets have been spent on pure pulp fiction. It consists entirely of instantly familiar plot and character archetypes lifted from all over the pop culture spectrum. The hero is a Disenfranchised Loner Who Finds His Home With A Different Race (he’s also a Handicapped Person Whose Useless Limbs Symbolize His Broken Soul). He becomes one-half of a pair of Starcrossed Lovers as he realizes the Far-Reaching, Nefarious Corporation he works for wants to destroy the Noble Savages he has come to respect and admire. Of course, it all culminates in a Battle Between Technology And Primitivism That Represents The Battle For The Human Spirit.
In short, there are no surprises in the plot of Avatar… but that’s actually not an issue. The film works because it takes its schlocky comic-book archetypes and realizes them in the most grandiose, heroic style imaginable. Whatever it loses in originality, it more than makes up for it with the tremendous amounts of imagination and discipline put into how it is told. In other words: it’s the singer, not the song.
For starters, the visual design really does live up to the pre-release hype. Seeing it in 3-D is a must because Cameron has genuinely created a new world for the audience’s eyes to luxuriate in. His team of CGI artists have woven a complex, colorful ecosystem that overflows with eye candy around each corner. Imagine the most mind-blowing fantasy-planet landscape you can think of, imagine that painting as a neon black-light poster and then imagine stepping into that black-light fantasy planet landscape. That’s what it is like to watch Avatar in 3D. It is true cyber-psychedelia; a controlled substance in movie form (I can see stoners with home theaters falling in love with it).
It also helps that Cameron was born to direct films like this. The comfortable familiarity of the storyline frees Cameron up to have fun with his storytelling technique and he takes full advantage. He dazzles the eye with spectacle but knows how to keep the spatial relationships clear within an action setpiece and when to focus in on a particular bit of action for maximum impact. The craftsman-like care he takes with the battles and adventure sequences ensures that they are satisfying in a way that big-screen action rarely is in our post-Michael Bay cinematic era.
Best of all, Cameron – like all noteworthy filmmakers, schlock or otherwise – has invested himself in his task, heart and soul. He’s got the money and the juice to make any movie he wants… and he made a sci-fi schlock epic, because that’s what he enjoys making. Your Humble Reviewer can’t help but admire when someone puts their money where their mouth is. James Cameron has done that with Avatar and my schlock-loving eyeballs thank him for it.