The Magazine


Another spectacle hits an iceberg and sinks.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Eventually, it falls to Jake to plug his fiber-optic cables into a plant and ask the Great Mother to do something. And she does. She rallies the pterodactyls, not to mention some rhinoceroses and dogs, to join with an army of blue people to take down the EC. In the end, it's Jake Sully vs. the Evil Marine, who is dressed up to look like (again, not kidding) a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot, one of those ludicrous toys from the late 1960s that gave toys a bad name.

You're going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie's politics-about how it's a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq, and so on. The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of.

The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe's adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.

Will it be? Aside from the anti-American, anti-human politics, the movie is nearly three hours long, and it doesn't have a single joke in it. There is no question that Avatar is an astonishing piece of work. It is, for about two-thirds of its running time, an animated picture that looks like it's not an animated picture.

On the other hand, who cares? It doesn't count for much that the technical skill on display makes it easier to suspend disbelief and make you think you're watching something take place on a distant planet. Getting audiences to suspend disbelief isn't the hard part; we suspend disbelief all the time. It's how we can see any movie about anything and get involved in the story. The real question is this: If Avatar were drawn like a regular cartoon, or had been made on soundstages with sets and the like, would it be interesting? Would it hold our attention?
The answer is, unquestionably no. There's no chance anybody would even have put it into production, no matter that Cameron made the box-office bonanza Titanic. So the question is: Does the technical mastery on display in Avatar outweigh the unbelievably banal and idiotic plot, the excruciating dialogue, the utter lack of any quality resembling a sense of humor? And will all these qualities silence the discomfort coming from that significant segment of the American population that, we know from the box-office receipts for Iraq war movies this decade, doesn't like it when an American soldier is the bad guy?

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary,is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.