So break a leg now, soon all the world will be a stage

Since at least 1989’s The Abyss, James Cameron has expanded the technical limits of cinema with each successive film. He’s gone to special effects artisans with a reasonable assessment of their capabilities and explained, probably with some degree of forcefulness, that it was time for them to do more, to reconfigure their belief as to which impossible images were now achievable to suit his the necessities of his vision. Despite the shortcomings of some of these films–shortcoming that were sometimes quite significant–each one was a landmark, a new row of stakes in the sand setting the border for digital magic further out than anyone else thought possible. For better or worse, there probably hasn’t been a more influential filmmaker across the past twenty years than Cameron. Not Spielberg, Scorsese or Tarantino. Not Fincher or Bay. The sort of film that absolutely dominates the American cinematic landscape now–the blasting action, the beat-by-beat romance, the characters that start from stock archetypes rather than recognizable people, the eye candy imagery that owes as much to servers farms as it does to human imagination–arguably came snake charmed up into the culture side-by-side with that curious water tendril twenty years ago.

That long shadow aside, Cameron has been largely absent since 1997’s Titanic went from the over-budget, delayed folly that some speculated, with no small amount of venomous glee, could become a Heaven’s Gate level career killer to a worldwide phenomenon that made the one-time director of Piranha II: The Spawning an Academy Award winner. He made a couple of documentaries that plunged 3-D cameras into the depths of the ocean, but it took until now for a fiction feature follow-up to highest grossing film of all time. It’s tempting to extrapolate that hesitancy as a frightful inability to figure out how to come up with an appropriate encore for the massive, nearly unprecedented success of Titanic. It seems just as likely, however, that it simply took this long for certainly technologies to advance sufficiently to capture his interest, to give him the chance to realize the images in his head to his exacting standards on the movie screen.

And so here we have Avatar, a cinematic colossus of alien landscapes and militaristic spaceships, wounded heroes and teeth-gnashing villains, swoony romance and crashing action. It is a science fiction film with a story that would be perfectly at home in a paperback fantasy novel, one of those with several hundred small-print pages that has the approximate heft of a brick. Set approximately 150 years in the future, the film stars Sam Worthington as a paraplegic marine who is recruited into a project that involves transferring his sentience into a genetically developed host body designed to allow him to fit in with an alien species on a distant planet. This race, the blue-skinned, Amazonian Na’vi, is styled by Cameron to resemble any number of indigenous earthly cultures that have exploited and displaced by supposedly superior interlopers throughout human history. Worthington’s character, in the guise of his avatar, immerses himself with one particular tribe in an effort to surreptitiously determine the best way to get access to the massive reserves of the coveted mineral unobtanium (a name that sounds as stupid here as it did when it was used in 2003’s The Core) that exist buried below their sacred trees. Predictably, he finds himself becoming increasingly enamored of these people, their dignity, their connection to nature and one another, until he’s falling in love and embracing their environmental spiritually to paint with all the colors of the wind.

Every leaf and rocky crag of the Na’vi’s planet and all the creatures that roam it are rendered digitally. It doesn’t look real exactly, but it looks realer than anything comparable that’s come before. The sheer amount of FX craftsmanship that needed to go into it is nothing short of staggering. More impressive is the realization of 3D imagery. As the new 3D revolution balances on the precipice between revived fad and the next step in the evolution of cinema, Cameron makes a strong argument for the latter. Instead of the flat layers shifting at different depths that are more the norm, Cameron uses new technologies that he helped develop to show actual form and shape. Characters riding upon great winged creatures as they soar through the air are the sorts of things that you show for a striking demonstration of the vividness of it all, but it’s the smaller elements that impress the most. Others can revel in battle sequences and spacescapes. I was dazzled by the rows of steel rectangular tables in a corporate cafeteria.

All this would be enough. It would get people into theater seats and then probably sell a few extra Blu-ray players upon the eventual release of the triple disc super edition DVD. It’s to Cameron’s credit that he introduces actual ideas to operate side-by-side with the Sturm and Drang. It’s to the film’s detriment that he falls prey to his usual flaw of not really thinking his ideas through. He plays around with notions of environmentalism and colonialism and the destructive momentum of capitalism, but there’s no depth to any of it. They’re brought into the picture with the same urgency and earnestness that a politically-minded fifteen-year-old might have in discussing them around the dinner table. You admire him for raising it, but it’s seriously lacking in maturity of thought. There’s no subtlety whatsoever.

Subtlety has never been Cameron’s strong suit, though. The man who was justly deprived of a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination when Titanic was claiming accolades in nearly every other category remains a writer utterly lacking in dexterity. The characters are leaden, the themes are awkwardly developed, and the script is peppered with cliches that would be painful in a movie set in the present day, much less one that takes place after a century-and-a-half of additional evolution to the language. We all know Cameron is the king of his world, but he could have used someone willing to step up and suggest that there may be a better choice than having a character bark out “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” Speaking of that character, for those who thought, reasonably, that Cameron could never conceive of a villain more cartoonish than Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley, Avatar offers up Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch, a military man so kick ass that he even drinks coffee in an ultra-tough manner. He barrels through scenes like a joke no one is in on, snarling and glowering and generally operating as if he was just given the direction “Okay, now let’s try a take that’s just ridiculously over the top.” It’s not even accurate the call the role one-note. It doesn’t have that level of tone. It’s a note named flatly, “B flat” spoken in an empty room. Cameron wrote Terminators with more nuance.

James Cameron genuinely wants to create something that feeds that head and the heart while it stimulates the senses. I believe that. The truth is, though, he’s a gut-level filmmaker. He frames shots with expertise and tells a story visually as well as anyone else out there. And when his films are really clicking, they have an undeniable kick. The last thirty minutes or so of Avatar is fun to watch, even if it lacks surprise or insight. I don’t think the movie is really what Cameron wants it to be. I don’t think the movie is really what Cameron thinks it is. It’s goofy when it’s supposed to be profound, and insipid when it’s supposed to be inspiring. There’s good material there, but it often gets drowned out by the din of childlike wonder giving way to childish nonsense. Time and again, Cameron has done a helluva job pushing others to achieve more. Maybe it’s about time he opened himself up to let someone challenge him to do better.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)