Avatar

Apparently, just three weeks after its release, I was already among the last people on Earth to see Avatar, James Cameron's long-awaited special effects epic. I was lucky to be invited to a free screening in Hollywood after which Cameron himself spoke about the movie. That's one of the perks of living in Los Angeles.

Anyway, now that I've rubbed your nose in it, I can add insult to injury by adding that I didn't much care for the movie, for the same reasons already mentioned by many other filmgoers and reviewers: the core of Cameron's plot, about a human Marine (Sam Worthington) who "virtually" joins the tribal aliens of another planet via a psychic uplink that controls an alien being (i.e. his avatar), has already been done countless times before. Most compare the story to Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, mainly because these aliens – the Na'vi – resemble Native Americans, and Avatar's story is essentially the story of the Native American genocide – but I was also reminded of The Last Samurai, Local Hero, Witness, James Clavell's Shogun, and even the Hugh Grant comedy The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. (With a healthy dose of Cameron's own Aliens thrown in for good measure.)

Those are just the titles off the top of my head. There are surely many other films with the similar premise of a company man/soldier sent to subjugate/investigate/train the "backward" members of an indigenous culture, winds up admiring and adapting their soulful ways, falls in love with a local girl, is accepted by the tribe, then leads them in their fight against the invading army/company.

So yes, while Avatar's visuals are spectacular and the director and production designers deserve a round of applause for the film's look, in the end we're still sitting in a theater for two and a half hours, and for that I'd expect a story that at least offered up a surprise here and there.

Avatar has a couple of nifty sci fi ideas, but mostly I was disappointed with how human-like the Na'vi were. I suppose it was Cameron's plan to depict a people (i.e. Indians) already familiar to audiences, but other than their height and blue skin, the only unusual aspects about the Na'vi are the tendrils in their ponytails which they attach to the animals they ride. One thing Star Trek always did so well was presenting alien cultures that were truly alien, with customs and biology astonishingly different from anything we homo sapiens have ever known. Cameron should have tried harder to give us a species that was a little more foreign. Even the subtitles for their language is in the overused Papyrus font. As a graphic designer, I find that unforgivable.

My real issue is with James Cameron the writer, and how he dumbs down his potentially complex – both morally and intellectually – scenarios. But hey, this dumbing down obviously works for him, since he's now made the two most financially successful motion pictures of all time. Give the people amazing special effects married to a predictable plot where they can root for the good guys and sneer at the bad guys and gasp at the explosions and leave the theater to some Top 40 diva screeching the movie's love theme, and you've got money in the bank.