I did get some major Wow. But it wasn't that pure, undiluted, leave-the-theater-head-spinning Wow that makes a movie a transcendent experience for me. At most, it gave some pretty terrific qualified Wow.
Warning: SPOILERS after the break.
For those who might be living under rocks and thus don't know the story, the hero of Avatar is a paralyzed ex-Marine named Jake Sully. When Jake's twin brother is killed during a mugging, Jake is recruited to fill the guy's spot in the Avatar Program taking place on the distant planet of Pandora, a job Jake is qualified to do pretty much only by virtue of sharing the exact same DNA as his twin.
The Avatar Program consists of a Matrix-like mind-meld of a human "driver" with a test-tube grown human/alien hybrid body. See, the planet of Pandora is populated by the Na'vi, blue-skinned humanoid creatures who stand at 12 foot easy and possess both amazing physical gracefulness and daring as well as four-fingered hands, the ability to mentally link themselves with animals and plantlife, and tails. By infusing Na'vi shell body Avatars with human thoughts - and presumably, human loyalties, priorities and greed - the Powers That Be on Pandora are hoping to somehow convince the native population that it makes perfect sense to allow the Sky People to rape and destroy their planet for its valuable natural resources the same way they did back on Earth. How, exactly, Jake-as-Avatar is supposed to accomplish this hard-sell is never quite made clear.
As would be expected, Jake takes to being an Avatar like a fish to water. In his new body, he can walk and run and live the way he once could before he became paralyzed. Through a series of unfortunate events, including being chased by a dino-like creature who wants to eat him and a mystical sign that just barely stops a Na'vi warrior from shooting him with a poisonous arrow, Jake lands in the heart of the Na'vi's home village. The chief's daughter, Neytiri, is given the unhappy job of teaching Jake the ways of the Na'vi. In short order, Jake is on his way to becoming an official member of the tribe.
When the Bully In Charge of Security Col. Quaritch tasks Jake with using his new in to suss out any Na'vi weaknesses, Jake doesn't give the prospect a second thought. He uses his human hours to download the intel he collects on the Na'vi and their environment, including Home Tree, a massive tree that houses the entire tribe as well as contains great spiritual and cultural significance to the natives. While he has no desire to see the Na'vi hurt in any way, he doesn't necessarily feel bad about any efforts to evict them from their own world if that's what it takes to get to the valuable goods located there.
But as Jake begins to know these creatures and understand how connected they are to their planet, he begins to change loyalties. Respect and love develops between Jake and Neytiri, and it isn't long before Jake's human existence becomes the dream-world and his Na'vi form the one that holds his true soul. So when his adoptive people are directly threatened by a corporate stooge's single-minded agenda and his blood-thirsty pit-bull of an enforcer, Col. Quaritch, Jake doesn't think twice about turning his weapons on his own kind.
Battles ensue. Characters die. An ending that leaves open the possibility of sequels ties the whole story up in a neat bow.
The Wow part of the movie is a no-brainer. Untold millions of dollars have been put into creating a visual experience unlike any other. It's shown in 3-D, but not the 3-D that sends sharks swimming off the screen to chomp at you or objects floating over an audience giggling as they reach out and grab at the empty air. The 3-D aspect simply adds amazing amounts of depth to the movie, giving you a very real sense of being on-the-ground with the characters. One of my favorite uses of 3-D in Avatar is to lift subtitles off the screen so that they're sort of suspended in air. It's very cool.
Too, Pandora as a planet is colored with a palette of pure phosphorescence. Everything glows, even the footsteps left behind as Jake and his Na'vi companion Neytiri walk through the jungle at night. Mountains float, trees grow larger than skyscrapers, and the animals look as if they only made it a few hundred millennia past the dinosaur phase on the evolutionary timeline.
Mostly, however, the depiction of the Na'vi simply takes your breath away. Foreign enough in their feline-like faces and blue-skinned bodies to be clearly alien, they retain enough human-ness to be relatable. When Neytiri feels anger or love or disgust, you know what she's feeling. Na'vi are far taller and far thinner than humans, and there are the yellow eyes, long ears and those awesome tails. But beneath the trappings of alieness, the Na'vi are an attractive life form. Jake is a good looking Na'vi warrior. Neytiri is a sexy, gorgeous female. It is very easy to forget that they are not human. This is both good and bad, which I will get to in a moment.
In creating Pandora, James Cameron certainly has taken a giant leap forward in movie making. He's pushed the CGI technology as far as he could to fantastic effect. There is a whole lot of Wow on Pandora.
Oddly, though, my thoughts leaving the theater weren't about the CGI. It was about the lack of Wow when it came to story.
Basically, if you've ever seen Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai or any other Going Native movie, you know the story in Avatar. There are simply no deviations from the traditional arc inherent in such tales - hero finds himself in a foreign world/culture, comes to respect said culture and eventually identifies himself as a member of this new culture even to the point of fighting his old culture in defense of the new - in Avatar. I could have written down the entire Avatar plot on a piece of paper, folded it up and sealed it in an envelope before entering the theater, and nearly three hours later opened the envelope to see that everything I'd predicted had come to pass.
I actually don't have much of a problem with the fact that Avatar relied so heavily on so many tropes it's almost embarrassing. Most of modern storytelling has become a matter of creative retelling. There are no new stories, only old stories repackaged. And I'm always a sucker for an underdog story. I wanted to root for Jake and the Na'vi to whoop some invading forces' ass, and when Jake and Neytiri fell in love, I was a big mushy pile of goo. I'm all for the if it ain't broke, don't fix it philosophy of movie making if what you start with works well.
My problem is that Cameron took so many pains to create this amazing new world only to use it to tell a story that has already been told here on Earth. Nothing about the story in Avatar required that it be set on the distant planet of Pandora.
Even the aliens were stock characters lifted from Earth. The Na'vi couldn't be more like Native Americans if they lived in longhouses or teepees and wore buffalo robes. They use bows and arrows as their primary weapon. They ride six-legged horse-like creatures. They wear their long, dark hair in braids and shave it into mohawks. They paint their bodies in times of war and adorn themselves in jewelry created from animal bones and teeth and bits of plants. They live in complete harmony with the land, respecting the animals they have to kill to survive by offering prayers of thanksgiving to the souls they've taken. They worship a mother goddess with a basis in nature, and mastery of wild beasts affords great respect for the one who can accomplish it. Even their language sounds as if it were based on a Native American language.
Jake had absolutely no problem assimilating with this culture because he probably passed 4th grade history. In fact, all anyone had to do to understand the Na'vi was head to the local library and do some extensive research on native cultures of any land.
In short, the aliens of Pandora simply weren't alien enough. They didn't look human, but they sure did act human. They mated for life. They lived in tribes. Heck, they even kissed.
(Side bar: Come on. We are supposed to believe that if alien life exists on other planets, not only will they look basically humanoid, have opposable thumbs and the ability to learn and speak English, but they will also commonly show affection and passion by pressing their mouths together?)
So the human-ness of the Na'vi was both good and bad. Good in that us real humans could relate to aliens from another planet. Bad because why bother relating to aliens from another planet if it's just like relating to fellow humans? Been there. Done that.
Too, the conflict inherent in the story - corporate greed and a war-mongering thug threatening the peaceful natives - was simply too...well, simple. The main antagonist never had a reason for his determination to carry out genocide other than that he was just a bad guy. Diplomacy was for sissies and the only way to achieve any goal was to blow the everliving shit out of anything or anybody that stood in his way, even if it meant destroying marvels that were literally beyond earthly. Such unadulterated megalomania is usually saved for mustache-twirling cartoon mad scientists bent on ruling the universe.
As a hero, Jake was very serviceable as a proxy for the audience to experience Pandora and the Na'vi. He did suffer a bit from Mighty Whitey syndrome once he got over the awkwardness of driving a 12 foot alien body. In taking on the Pandora topography, Jake was absolutely fearless, again having little trouble adapting to what is supposed to be a completely alien experience. As a character, I found him far more appealing as the Na'vi warrior than the human ex-Marine trying to cope with his disability.
In the end, the characters were likable but hardly unique, and we never truly got to know them short of the stereotypical roles they were designed to fill. The story was entertaining but hardly worthy of the amount of attention and detail that went into creating the world it was set in. And the Wow factor was limited to the dazzle and sparkle of the cool stuff they can do with computers these days. It felt much like Cameron had designed the world's most beautiful dress, the likes of which has never before been seen, and then stuck it on an inflatable doll.
I suppose I could let this go. I could be wowed by the beauty of the film and the world of Pandora. I could relax in the predictability of a traditional story arc and sigh over the pretty pretty aliens falling in love. There is plenty about Avatar to like to be sure.
But I wanted to be blown away. Completely, and by every aspect of the movie, not just the CGI. I'm in the same camp as Owen Gleiberman in that eye candy cannot be considered a substitute for a full meal. For a truly fulfilling movie experience, I need both, the dazzle and the heart-touching story.