So yesterday we went to see the 3-D version of Avatar, which has arrived on a blast of the kind of hype that only a movie which wound up costing $460 million dollars seems to be able to generate. The movie has been heralded as epochal, game-changing event in the history of moviemaking. (There's a terrific recent profile of director James Cameron by Dana Goodyear in the October 26 New Yorker which makes a plausible case for that.) It has also been observed that Avatar has a five-hundred milllion dollar body and a ten-cent brain. There's an element of truth in both points of view.
Certainly it is the most amazing and consistently riveting visual experience I've ever had in a movie theatre. Even when what you're watching doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny, it's gorgeous to look at, and there was never a moment in the movie where I found myself drifting off or reacting to anything other than the amazingly complex and richly imagined world unfolding in front of my eyes. Whatever else you might say about James Cameron, he has succeeded in putting together a movie that goes, technologically, where no movie has gone before. And it's going to make billions, so you can't fault him on having bad business sense either.
The plot is another matter. Certainly it's no worse than a thousand other movies that have been made along the same lines. There are certain buttons that moviemakers have learned to push. The are certain story lines that just get repeated over and over again because they work, because they resonate with human psychology at some basic archetypal level and elicit a very predictable response. There are no new stories. However, there's a difference between telling an old story in a way that makes it fresh, and telling an old story from a list of plot conventions so mechanically that you can almost feel the boxes being checked off. James Cameron has made his list and he's checked it twice, or maybe twice times twice times twice. Ordinary guy gets sent to alien world. Check. Has to establish his street cred with the humans already there. Check. Humans want to exploit natural resources of the alien environment. Check. Our hero gets sent undercover into the alien world and immediately faces danger. Check. Is saved by native girl. Check. From that beginning, you can go ahead and make up you own list of where we're going with this, and by the time you get done with this movie you'll find every single item on your list will have been checked off. There is nothing new under the Pandoran (or Pocahantan) sun.
Which is not an argument against seeing the movie. If there were ever a movie that qualified as a must-see, Avatar is it. It is, as advertised, just mind-blowingly, amazingly, awesomely impressive entertainment experience. There are chase scenes and fight scenes and taming-the-wild-beast scenes that are going to be talked about and admired - and, perhaps unfortunately, imitated - for years to come. You just don't want to think too hard about it after you leave the theatre.