Billions, schmillions—Avatar is sheer self-indulgence touted as cutting-edge sci-tech.avatarcw.jpg

But that’s not my big issue with this bloat of folkloric cheesiness wrapped in day-glo and eco-blather. And I don’t care how many billions are being shelled out for this film.

My main problem with Avatar lies with the moral implications of such big budget generic commercialism: Lack of courage.

Once upon a time, filmmakers had imaginations larger than their budgets. Often they had fresh stories to tell, and fueled by their imaginations they shaped these stories with words, images and directorial vision into cinematic gems. The greatest made work that endured, enchanted and enlightened.

Given the amount of advance hype, the ten years of his life director James Cameron (The Abyss, Aliens, The Titanic) gave to the project, and the amount of money it cost, there was good reason to get excited about the Big Holiday Movie that opened less than a month ago. Alas while Cameron took his sweet time tinkering with technology and special effects, film fashion passed him by. The hackneyed graphics, the psychedelic sensibility, the embarrassing ethnic stereotypes, the recycled underwater-meets-the-rainforest imagery, the sophomoric script and most of all the shocking lack of fantasy/sci-fi vision make this the howler of the decade.

Dances with Wolves meets The Lion King
Cameron is a sucker for simple tales of worlds colliding with some sort of trans-species lovefest as a result. He’s made that film before – and better. Yet here it is again. Cameron’s “breakthrough” film offers us the clash of two planetary cultures, one a dying exercise in warfare and pollution (us), the other a paradise of ecological sensitivity and peace (them). Within that us/them duality lies another one: passionate science nerds exploring a new world and its highly evolved ecophere, vs. a pack of military/industrial types intent upon raping the land for its mineralogical loot. Yes, a plot as fresh as transfats in a time capsule.

But Cameron, who lost his sense of perspective as well as his fourth and fifth wives during the interminable filming of this pixel hog, doesn’t even see the irony here. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the technology to make this film, which allegedly is about the evils of technology. Our Netflix order of Zabriskie Point, arguably one of the alltime screen bow-wows, looked bracingly astute by comparison.

There’s plenty of cultural cowardice to go around. Cameron is obsessed with hustling tired scenarios tarted up as new eye candy. Think Dances With Wolves meets The Lion King and you will have the basic “plot.” Earth guy comes to exotic planet where the “natives” are all large, blue and in tune with Nature. And they all have natural rhythm too. Predictably the earth guy “goes native,” and here’s where the film devolves into “We are the world, we are the children.”

Cameron is liberal with his stereotypes. There isn’t an ethnic group he fails to insult in his determination to play imperialist bwana to people of photoshopped color. But since this film has grossed so blitheringly much money, I have heightened doubts about the level of inquiry and imagination of the public at large. How can so many ask for so little?  Consider the artistic sloth of sticking to a safe formula disguised with golly-gee special effects. Emotionally shallow mainstream audiences ask so little, and filmmakers are happy to respond with even less.

There’s 20 minutes of interest here, especially the parts where the big blue people from planet Pandora (I couldn’t make this up) ride through the air, swirling and soaring, on the backs of their winged teradactylesque creatures. Shimmering waterfalls, islands in the sky, flourescent forests, yeah there’s some nifty stuff to look at.  But not two and a half hours nifty! In the end, Avatar (itself an avatar for the director’s ego) is just plain boring. Cameron’s lack of chance-taking (or maybe it’s just lack of imagination) cuts him out of that inner circle he feels so entitled to. He’s no Stanley Kubrick (who reframed edgy, controversial texts), and he’s a far cry from Steven Spielberg (a storytelling genius). Even George Lucas’ Freudian playfulness leaves Cameron in the dust. Folkloric cheesiness and expensive digital effects in service of a generic plot. What a waste of serious money that might have financed dozens of genuinely innovative films.

And with dialogue like this —“If they get to the Tree of Souls, it’s over!” —Cameron should be forced to vacate Malibu.