[This review of Avatar was originally published at Good Letters, the official blog of Image.]

If you didn’t have one, you had a friend who did: The Big Toybox.

You know the one I mean: A wooden crate like the Ark of the Covenant, full of mystery and revelation. Opened and overturned, it set loose a tidal wave of miscellaneous pieces from a hundred different worlds spilled across the floor. Building blocks, LEGOs, Tinkertoys, adventure sets, action figures, pieces from unassembled model kits, game pieces, Mr. Potato Head’s features, you name it.

Childhood memories of toybox-diving came rushing back as I watched Avatar for the first time.

Drawing on almost unlimited resources earned from his past blockbusters, director James Cameron has made a movie built from the playsets of every movie he’s ever made or loved. Roger Ebert has famously said, “A movie is not about what it is about, it is about how it is about it.” And Avatar’s “how” is groundbreaking. It’s the most persuasive and immersive 3D experience ever.

But I’d argue that the film’s most significant achievement is not just in the “how,” but in the “what.”

Normally, innovations are employed to bring horrors and nightmares to life. Peter Jackson depended on New Zealand for the beauty of The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth, using effects to depict monsters, wars, and wastelands.

By contrast, Pandora is a whole new world of breathtaking beauty, exploding with wild new life forms that give soar, spark, prowl, pounce, gallop, and graze. Borrowing heavily, and brilliantly, from what he’s seen in deep-sea exploration, Cameron has built the most enchanting magic kingdom since Dorothy first stepped into Technicolor Oz. The first hour feels like something Terrence Malick might film in a rain forest in a galaxy far, far away.

As we fall under Pandora’s spell, it’s easy to understand why our wide-eyed, human hero—a parapalegic ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)—finds himself in the mood for love.

By now you’ve probably read a dozen versions of the plot, so let’s sum up:

When his brother dies in the middle of an urgent intergalactic endeavor, Jake Sully finds himself recruited to step in and take his place. On the planet Pandora, humans are engaging an alien culture called the N’avi, and Jake—like Neo in The Matrix—is “the one” they need. They’ll wire him up, and implant him in an alien body (Shazam! He can walk!) so that he can infiltrate the indigenous society.

Scientists want Jake to be a peaceful ambassador, a bridge builder. They’re hoping he’ll writeThree Cups of N’avi Tea.

But the military, acting on the orders of the heartless adminstrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), and commanded by the trigger-happy Colonel Quaritch (an impressively scarred Stephen Lang), want Jake to be their “eyes on the ground.” They expect him to gather intelligence so they can move in and harvest a valuable ore called “unobtanium” which is worth a fortune back home.

The N’avi are tall, blue-skinned aliens who seem to have evolved as a cinematic insult to the Ewoks: Instead of pint-sized, clumsy, flea-bitten, and grunting, they’re willowy, graceful, well-groomed, and eloquent. So Jake predictably throws the plan off course, falling hard for Neytiri (Star Trek’s new Uhura, Zoe Saldaña), the alien beauty who mentors him in the N’avi language and teaches him to tame winged steeds called banshees.

Before long, he and Grace (Weaver), the scientist who trains him how to inhabit an avatar, are investigating the intriguing biology and spirituality of the N’avi. While the aliens’ faith is a mishmash of world religions calculated to minimize controversy, Avatar’s spirituality is admirably incarnational. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive: one informs the other to the better understanding of both. But soon, Jake and Grace must fight back against their own kind, trying to save tree-hugging natives from the pre-emptive strikes of shock and awe.


At this point, Avatar’s enchantment is disrupted by political speechifying almost as simplistic as the sermon that spoiled Cameron’s The Abyss, culminating in big-screen battles and familiar sights of bow-and-arrow natives fighting stormtroopers and machines. Cameron’s made tremendous strides in filmmaking science, but his storytelling is a feat of consolidation rather than innovation.

The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dune, The Dark Crystal, Dances with Wolves, The MatrixAvatar’s as encyclopedic in its adventure-movie references as any movie ever made.Lawrence of Arabia? Meet Jake Sully of Pandora. References to the first two Alien films andAliens are everywhere. (I laughed when Sigourney Weaver made her entrance in classic Alien fashion, rising from cryogenic sleep in a coffin-shaped bin.)

Early reviews announced Avatar as an event equal to the release of Star Wars. But Star Wars’ visual-effects revolution was propelled by characters who became iconic for their attitudes, styles, voices, and character arcs. Kids may collect Avatar’s Dragon Assault Ships and Scorpion Gunships, but I doubt they’ll take to Jake Sully, Neytiri, and Grace the way we took to Skywalker, Solo, the Princess, and the droids.

Avatar’s also weakened by bland, forgettable action-movie dialogue, which may translate easily into international subtitles, but not into memorable, quotable conversations.

Most troubling of all is the film’s simplistic sermonizing.

The masterstroke of the original Star Wars‘ trilogy was its bold third-act subversion of audience hopes and expectations. Lucas made the villain we loved to hate into a redeemable human being, one who could be saved by grace. Avatar has nothing so bold or redeeming as that, nothing to discomfort audiences with the wild truth.

What begins as mythmaking devolves into political pulpit-pounding, a narrow-minded “war-for-oil” critique of recent and present-day American military interventions in the Middle East that sounds oh-so-2004.

And the N’avi are the kind of idealized culture that hinders meaningful storytelling. The pendulum of our cultural memory has swung the other way—from excusing our destruction of Indian cultures in the name of Manifest Destiny, to damning all Western advances and idealizing Native Americans as innocents in Eden.

So I’ll join the chorus in singing “I can’t believe my eyes.” But I cannot echo the recurring declaration that the movie is “mind-blowing” unless I mean that the movie short-circuited my intellect as I watched. The waves of toys spilling from Cameron’s toybox momentarily distracted me from the fact that what he’s built from them is flimsy and crude.

As an achievement in technical innovation, Avatar is phenomenal, a ride worth taking more than once, but as adventure movies go, it is impressively new in every way except the way that matters most. Its look will last. But its heart won’t go on.

Also recommended: Steven Greydanus’s review at Decent Films.

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