I think the Britisch Academy for Film and Television was correct in giving BAFTAs to Avatar for its production design and visual effects. The technology used to film/make/render the film is groundbreaking, and the creation of an entirely new world is unparalleled in last year’s releases. I also think it is correct that Avatar did not win any of the other awards, because it is a rubbish movie.
Cameron himself explained in Vanity Fair how Avatar began: “I took every bit of character creation that I’d done as an illustrator, just doodling around since I was in middle school, hunkered down behind the textbooks in class. I had thousands and thousands of drawings, lots and lots of ideas, so I just worked it all up into one big story.” Cameron than goes on explaining that the story he had was thematically unfocused, and that he had to cut a few (!) pages to satisfy the big bosses at Fox.
However, the experience of the film is as such: thousands of drawings stayed in. Lots of ideas are nowhere to be found. At least, lots of original Cameron ideas are nowhere to be found. Unless drawings, and the subsequent production design, count as ideas. Perhaps they do. I guess that it is an idea to make the natives blue and shiny and different from humans but not so different that they alienate the public. It is definitely an idea to have floating mountains. Whether that is a good idea is another story.
The Cameron quote points out another major weakness of Avatar as well. It is indeed a schoolboy fantasy. It is the type of stuff that you scribble in the margins of your chemistry book when you’re sixteen and bored and it is May and the sun shines and it’s 3 P.M. and you wanna be outside with nice girls in short skirts. Smart people put that stuff in a box and hide it in the attic to be reread alone on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Cameron, let’s give credit where it is due, made the most succesful movie of all time out of his schoolboy fantasies.
But succesful is not good. Necessarily. The time that a box office take was somehow correlated to the quality of a film ended somewhere in the nineties. In his book “Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer” Tom Shone shows how big movies make big bucks, even if they are not that good, because everyone goes to see them to see if they’re really as good as the marketing says they are. Or worse, as in the case of Godzilla: everyone goes to see the movie to see for themselves whether it is as bad as the critics say it is.
So Cameron succeeded in turning his schoolboy fantasies into the most succesful movie of al time, but it is not good. It looks good, but that’s not the same. It’s lack of original plot and ideas, in combination with a runtime twice that of aforementioned Pocahontas, make it incredibly boring and predicatable and slow and boring. If I had brought my old chemistry book to the screening I would have been scribbling my own fantasies in its margins while waiting either for the film to just end or for something to start happening.
It also takes itself way too serious for a film about oversized supersmurfs who chant umbaya around a magical tree and have some sort of USB connection to animals in their hair. Every character is not just a stereotype, but it is a stereotype of a stereotype. Almost every line of dialogue hurts. Every sentence that passes the computer-generated lips of the ‘characters’ falls like a stone to the ground. I frankly wondered what happened to the man who once had a little girl say that “they mostly come at night. Mostly.”
But it looks good, and the action sequences, when they finally start, are spectacular. And it looks good.
One final comment: Perhaps it was not so smart to use a new, hyperrealistic film technology to make a fantasy film. Considering how good the technology really is, wouldn’t it have been far more spectacular if Cameron had made an epic historical drama? Where everyone sees that it does not only look good but also real? With a proper love story between people you empathize with, and with a sad ending? I mean: I’d have paid good money to see Titanic in 3D.