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An ‘Epic’ That Doesn’t Quite Make the Cut

Shane Steinberg | Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I could gush over the special effects and write all starry-eyed about the mesmerizing world that is James Cameron’s stunningly rendered, decade-in-the-making brainchild, “Avatar.” I could do that and almost coincidentally forget all about the film’s overly clichéd plot, rather overlong runtime and amateurishly blatant attempt at social commentary. But I won’t.
Because while Cameron’s latest epic is groundbreaking in an aesthetic sense, it falls short of the lofty bar it sets for itself in nearly every other way. I’m not going to rain on the “Avatar” parade, which has seemingly gone on without an end in sight for many a month now, by trashing the film, because frankly, I have a nice spot reserved for it in this year’s top 10 list. That being said, and I don’t think that this should shock or even so much as surprise anyone, “Avatar” is no “Titanic.” Yes, “Avatar” is “epic” in scale and in a purely visual sense, but at the same time, the word “epic” and all of the connotations it carries is something I’m unwilling to attach to this film.
Light years away from Earth, the film is set on Pandora, a life-harboring planet where an all-powerful corporation is mining an extremely valuable mineral that is being used as the solution to Earth’s energy crisis. For numerous reasons, the company has created the Avatar program, where genetically engineered copies of the natives are used as surrogates for human scientists and military men alike. Jake Sully, a once dedicated marine bound to a wheelchair for life, is sent with a team of scientists and secretly tasked with the all-important mission of infiltrating the native Na’vi and gaining their trust so that the company can move in and exploit the land for the abundance of minerals located right on the native’s land. Able to not only gain their trust but also become one of the Na’vi, Jake collaborates with the evil, shoot-first-ask-questions-later military, only to later grow an affection and close attachment to the Na’vi and the land. Faced with the decision of protecting the interests of his employer and the only thing he has ever known, the military, and siding with the helpless Na’vi and his newfound love, Neytiri, the princess of the Na’vi, Jake follows his heart and decides to fight against the tyranny of the company and side with the Na’vi.
That’s the basic summary, so sitting in the theater, 3-D glasses on, and popcorn at hand, I couldn’t for the life of me shrug off the feeling that I had seen “Avatar” before — or at least that I had seen “Avatar’s” plotline before. That’s because “Avatar” is, and I know that some will cringe and feel umbrage when reading this, a generic film if there ever was one. It’s a cliché love story, as are about 90 percent of love stories, and the only reason why that stands out here is because it’s Cameron at the helm of this project, and as the director of “Titanic,” he is and rightfully should be held up to a higher standard than most directors. It’s a shame too, because the single greatest flaw holding back “Avatar” from being a truly amazing film is the unavoidable fact that anyone with 10 brain cells can map out the film’s story from beginning to end 30 seconds into the previews.
Cameron’s name being inescapably attached to the film as though it’s a part of the title, one can’t help to compare “Avatar,” his latest film, to “Titanic,” his greatest film. Both being love stories with enormous budgets that have achieved not only commercial but critical success, the two films are inherently similar but inevitably different. That difference being that for all of “Avatar’s” flash and special effects, “Titanic” and all of it’s passionately shot, and unforgettable still images such as the hitting of the iceberg and most famously, the image of Rose at the head of the ship, arms wide open, is what makes “Titanic” superior to “Avatar” even in an aesthetic sense.
And then there’s the failure that is “Avatar’s” pitiful attempt at saying, “Hey everybody, we exploit not only other cultures but the environment for our own betterment, and that’s bad.” Actually, add an exclamation point or maybe five after that quote, and then repeat it about 10 times, wait a few minutes, and then start the process all over again and you’ll have “Avatar” minus the special effects and the cast. Only — and really try to do this — try to make it subtle as best you can, but at the same time, subconsciously be as obvious and repetitive about it as possible. Then you’ll truly be “Avatar” as a social commentary.
So for every one of the film’s successes that inspires ogling and jaw-dropping, there are about five failures that have the exact opposite effect. Usually, that makes for a terrible film, but in the rare case that is “Avatar,” what’s left is still an attractive experience at the movies that is what very few films are: memorable.