I finally went and saw Avatar, and, while it certainly does blow you away with its technical brilliance, I found just about everything else about it frustrating and disappointing.
The biggest disappointment is that, having demonstrated his ability to bring a totally alien world to life, Cameron doesn’t bother to populate it with totally alien aliens. Six legs and spiracles notwithstanding, most of the animals are instantly recognizable as having been based on specific terrestrial genera (Brontotherium, Tapejara, Panthera, Equus, etc. — and of course Homo), and sometimes the resemblances get even more precise. The horse-analogues, rather than just being vaguely ungulate-like, specifically call to mind draft horses of the Shire breed, and the human-analogues (if that’s even the right word for something so human in every anatomical detail) are recognizably Nilotic under the blue skin. The alien humans are by far the worst. While the other animals may give the general impression of a Shire horse or a panther, they are still clearly not from earth. The people, though, are — well, people. The USB-cord thing in the hair is about the only thing that would make anyone hesitate to classify the Na’vi as primates, and human primates at that, albeit with atavistic tails. Not only do they lack spiracles, they have eyebrows and breasts and five-toed feet and long hair in the same place humans have long hair, and they smile and laugh and shed tears as an expression of sadness and speak a language with no features that would surprise Noam Chomsky. Talk about convergent evolution! They’re so thoroughly human that we don’t find it even remotely shocking or unsettling when the earth-human protagonist falls in love with one of them.
Which brings me to the second big disappointment: the complete lack of moral tension. The decision to turn against your own people and make war on them has got to be a monumentally difficult one, even when your own people are clearly the bad guys. Every instinct of loyalty and prudence is pulling you in the other direction, and to override those instincts requires heroism. Jake, though, doesn’t seem to wrestle with his choice at all. “How does it feel to betray your own race?” the colonel asks him at the movie’s climax — a question which apparently goes right over Jake’s head. As far as we can tell, he doesn’t feel anything in particular about turning against his species. The discovery that his people are the bad guys and that it is his duty to kill them — which should be at least as wrenching as learning that your father is Darth Vader — makes no discernible emotional impression on him. He doesn’t see “us” and “them” at all, only good guys and bad guys. This is all perhaps very morally admirable, but it comes so easily to him that it’s drained of its heroism. Courage means feeling the temptation to do the wrong thing but doing the right thing anyway; Cameron never manages to convince us that Jake feels the temptation. The same goes for the handful of other humans who join Jake, for whom betrayal is as easy as saying (almost in so many words) “Screw this, I’m switching sides,” and never looking back.
In an early scene Jake thanks his alien love interest for killing some nasty alien predators that were about to have him for lunch, and she rebukes him with, “Don’t thank. You don’t thank for this. This is sad.” I assumed at that point that Cameron was foreshadowing the ending of the film — that when the war had been won and the Na’vi were thanking Jake for helping them kill off the nasty humans who were going to bulldoze their village, he would echo those words back to them. I could hardly have been more wrong. With so many critics complaining about Avatar‘s very predictable plot, I guess I should be happy that Cameron managed to surprise me, but, well — you don’t thank for this. This is sad.
Still, though, when all’s said and done, the special effects were pretty damn cool.