So, I finally bit the bullet this weekend and when and saw James Cameron's sprawling uber-hit Avatar. I reckoned since it had been out for four weeks, I wouldn't have to fight off a mob to get a decent seat. Not so. The film is apparently a box office juggernaut, and has cruised to the $1.3 billion dollar mark on the strength of it's fourth weekend. For the average moviegoer, this means the theatres continue to be full. Book early.
It sure is popular. But is it any good? Answering this question - at least for me, prone as I am to over-thinking - is proving to be complicated. At the structural level, it's a pretty good film. The story is entertaining enough, and the sheer audacity of its scope overshadows most of the film's many implausibilities. The dialogue clips along, and the performances, while workmanlike, are efficient. The actors all know who the real star is - Avatar's game-changing special effects. As a technical achievement, this film is masterful. It looks like nothing you've ever seen, which is good, since the story combines elements of at least 15 movies you've seen already.
It's at the next layer of complexity - the movie's themes, and dare I say, morals - that Cameron started to lose me. Avatar's politics are relentlessly ham-fisted. I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the whole "technology corrupts man" or "respect the Earth" threads that run through the film. It's just that Cameron's treatment of them is totally lacking nuance or depth. The human representatives of the technological world are either clownish villains or unquestioning drones, while the indigenous Na'vi live a virtuous and perfect life, free from conflict, disease or want. I don't begrudge the film's right to criticize the failings of human industrial civilization. The trouble is there's no real redemptive aspect to this story. Cameron seems to be saying that humanity is a doomed and immoral aberration, so your only hope is to become a big blue bucolic alien. And since those aliens don't exist, it's a problematic moral.
Of course, this is just part of the swirling vortex of contradiction that is James Cameron. There's a delightful irony in a director that seems to hate technology yet is one of the most technology-driven filmmakers working today. And, it's interesting to me that Cameron's last film - built around a giant floating symbol of man's hubris - bankrolled Avatar, a film that is, in itself, a mammoth exercise of ego. At this rate, the self-proclaimed King of the World will soon be bigger than his own films. No mean feat.
And yet somehow, I still enjoyed Avatar. There's something to be said for participating in a cultural event, even if it is flawed. If you can keep your mind floating blissfully above the clumsy politics, there's a lot to appreciate here. Unlike other effects-drive filmmakers (I'm looking at you, George Luca), Cameron can still back up his eye candy with a decent story. It's not a great film, but it is great spectacle. And, in the end, that's probably worth the $15.