Not often these days do we get a real "event" movie, as they are known in the business. Event movies are those that fill the theaters, provoke months of build up, endless post-viewing debate and are remembered years later. Titanic was an event movie. Most of us, even those only passively plugged into mainstream culture, will have a small folder in our minds dedicated to Leo-mania.For all director James Cameron's assumed arrogance, he clearly understands the basics of good PR. When you pitch ideas with not just big, but record-breaking budgets, the sell means much more than the script. The frenzied build up to the release of his over a decade-in-the-making project Avatar assured, at the least, a successful opening weekend and, therefore, the money to fund his next venture. This is the kind of movie people want to have an opinion on, and it doesn't matter to Cameron whether that opinion is positive or negative as long as they care enough to pay for a ticket or two.
For all the soft-core politics of Avatar and its allusions to any war in modern history and embracement of the environmental movement, post-viewing debate will rapidly boil down to the question of whether you found the gigantic, blue alien lady sexy.
And so be it - cinema began as a spectacle and here Cameron creates an essential cinematic experience. In the early 1900s a grainy image of two people in a café was considered spectacular, now over-stimulated audiences need a surreal rainforest planet rendered in 3D to shake them up. Avatar may proclaim a futuristic storyline - the mind of a paralyzed marine is plugged into an alien body in order to report back to the military on their way of life - but it's old-fashioned at heart.
Fans of Cameron will pick up on many plagiarized elements from his previous work - from science fiction inventions to action sequences. His broad themes may hold a comforting familiarity on the planet of Pandora, but however immersive this strange world becomes, it's the trite script that periodically brings you back to reality.
There's no doubt that this is an immensely enjoyable experience that during its three-hour run time pulls all the right strings to have you happily jerked along in time with the action. Anyone can be entertained thoroughly by the novelty of the 3D experience, and fascinated by the detail and depth this provides. The general consensus amongst reviewers is that Cameron's plot and scripting failings should be overlooked in view of his technological achievements. But one of the reasons those two people in the café in the movies of the 1930s and 1940s were so spectacular is their brilliant banter. Avatar is one of the most expensive movies ever made, so if nothing else it should look good. Essentially Cameron just needed to pay the right people the right amount of money to get that done.
Although pandering to the social consciousness and new-agey spirituality of his audience, Cameron stills like to smash the scenery. For a big studio release, Avatar has a bleak view of the military-industrial complex, but is still wishy-washy enough that some young men turned up to the opening night screening wearing military uniforms.
Avatar is ultimately more personal than political, and more people are busy talking about the sexiness of the lady alien than the futility of war. Cameron's lack of clarity could make the story seem cynically manipulative at worst and lazily arrogant at best. Entertainment is becoming progressively more fractured, and such a shared social experience of culture as this is rare. The platform was ready, but one can already imagine Cameron stumbling to the podium at the Academy Awards yelling blandly, nonsensically, "This is our land!"
The visual effects might be game changing, but it is definitely still the same game. Avatar not only lacks good dialogue, but a strong dialogue spoken clearly for peace on (and with) the earth.
Starring Sam Worthington,
Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Written and directed by James Cameron