John Scalzi reviews Avatar and makes explicit what we already knew:
Cameron has enough of a track record that even without seeing this film I pretty much know how it will be: Amazing visually and technically, with a story that ranges from barely passable to moderately intriguing, with the weaknesses of the story compensated for by a better than average cast of actors and very well integrated action sequences. That’s pretty much a given at this point.
But what about that story?
The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.
No, a serviceable story is not positive, especially when we consider how much money was spent on this particular film. Cameron could have hired any number of willing screen writers, dialogue masters, sci-fi novelists or monkeys with typewriters to help him make the story as impressive as his visuals. But he didn’t. I’d bet money the idea never even crossed his mind. Because to Cameron and most movie producers, big sci-fi action films don’t need a compelling story. In fact, movie audiences have been trained to not even bother looking for one, and so the stories have become mere plot coupons to carry the audience from one exploding set piece to another without boring them too much. You see this more than most with Avatar, where many of the reviews gloss over the story and spend most of the time talking about the effects. That’s all the movie is really about. The fact that it all hangs on a shallow skeleton of a story is not even mentioned, or if it is, apologized for, as if a complex and engaging story is somehow a sin. “Heavens, let’s not irritate the mouth breathers by making them think too hard about what they’re seeing!”
And of course what they’re seeing is pure racist tripe. It’s the noble savage, wrapped up in a burrito of white guilt/anti-imperialism with a dollop of muddled racial essentialism on top. Or, as Michael Berube summarized it:
…the disabled jarhead goes into the Matrix, dances with wolves, falls in love with the princess, and (as Janet says) learns to paint with all the colors of the wind. And people are complaining that they’ve seen this movie before? Good grief, people, can’t you see that you’re getting at least five or six movies for the price of one? I mean, you’ve even got some Antz in there, you’ve got Vasquez from Aliens reunited with Sigourney Weaver (hey, and some guys from the Company, too!), and you’ve got a bunch of Ursula LeGuin narratives incorporated by implication. The visuals really are stunning, and how great is it that they actually called the mineral ”unobtainium”? It’s like calling it “macguffinite ore.”
But at least it looks pretty. (And yes, I’m “over”thinking it).
I realize I’m pissing into the wind in demanding better stories for my money.* The market for such a thing is against me. Audiences don’t demand better stories, and so directors and producers don’t make them. And until they do, we will see only thinner and thinner spectacle. Bread and circuses, chariot races around gladiators stabbing bears, noble savage myths about Thundersmurfs. It’s the same shit, warmed over again.
* $10 13 for a 3D-induced headache is not my idea of a good time. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky, and will soon start muttering about children and lawns, but I refuse to pay money for the privilege of minor head trauma. If James Cameron wants to beat me up, fine, but I won’t let him mug me while he’s at it.