I’ll leave it to the box-office gods to decide if the slightly soft opening of James Cameron’s Avatar this past weekend was actually the result of a Northeast snowstorm, whether that was just studio spin, or if it’s some combination of the two. (I vote for the latter.) What I will say is that the visually shimmery, feast-for-the-eyes 3-D psychedelic action spectacular that I saw a week and a half ago was hampered – rather obviously, to me – by a so-so, functional-but-never-more-than-functional storyline, that it still has a so-so storyline, and that it always will have a so-so storyline. I’m not just talking about the fact that Avatar, as so many have pointed out, is a Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves retread. (Recycling old myths and narratives is something that movies have a right to do.) I’m talking about this story’s almost generic lack of surprise, psychological conflict, and dramatic layering. There is, for instance, nothing of any interpersonal charge happening within the Na’vi tribe. They’re just saintly utopian good guys. And Sam Worthington’s Jake, as both romantic hero and born-again anti-corporate-military eco-crusader – basically, he goes native to save the Pandora rain forest – remains, to the end of the movie, a character without a whisper of interior fascination. As a handsome Na’vi warrior, he’s virtual, all right: There’s virtually nothing to him but his “arc.”
And yet, of course, I realize that I’m behind the curve in even voicing such sentiments. In Avatar, or so we’re told, the 3-D primeval-forest-as-techno-Eden imagery is so potent and cool and “visionary” that it overpowers any pesky, stodgy 19th-century pleas for bold, fresh, and original narrative excitement. What’s far more interesting to me right now than the rotely predictable storyline of Avatar is the potential cultural-wide acceptance of the notion that this is now all that a movie really needs to be.
Reading some of the prestige critics who have swooned over the film, such as Manohla Dargis of The New York Times (Avatar, she writes, is “glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged,” and Cameron “is a filmmaker whose ambitions transcend a single movie or mere stories”), or my friend David Denby of The New Yorker (“The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!”), what strikes me is that although both these critics make brainy, passionate cases for the movie as something radically new, what they’re really embracing, in effect, is the visual-pow!-trumps-narrative aesthetic that has ruled Hollywood for the past 25 years. Both these reviews might have run under the headline “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Eye Candy.”
For, of course, the sentiment that I keep hearing (on the message-board postings of my original review, for instance), the one that says that the images of Avatar rock, they rule, they transcend, is as old and familiar as the audience response to every “awesome” FX blockbuster from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones to Live Free or Die Hard to 2012. Avatar may be trying for something greater, but the aesthetic, in essence, is the same: Put my eyeballs on drugs, and nothing else matters.
It’s worth mentioning, in this context, one other film: Cameron’s Titanic, which moviegoers all over the world, including me, think of as a modern classic – a movie for the ages – but which, in the 12 years since its release, has been subjected to the most vitriolic and telling revisionist backlash of any movie of its time. You know the point of view I’m talking about. The one that says: That script sucked! It had awful lines! And all those terrible flowery romantic clichés! I don’t feel as if I need to defend Titanic (you either love the movie or you don’t), but I will say this: As an act of storytelling, with two wondrously sympathetic and expressive young matinee idols enacting a stormy reverie of youthful love that catastrophe renders timeless, it is Shakespeare compared to Avatar. Or is Avatar now the new Shakespeare?
I open the question up to you. Did anyone else find Avatar’s storyline as lacking as I did? And, maybe more to the point, how much does story matter in a visually driven contemporary blockbuster? Does it matter less than it used to? And, if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?