The blockbuster Avatar, monstering the box office on its way to certain Oscar glory, has earned the endorsement of Peter Jackson ("extraordinary") and Ridley Scott ("phenomenal"). Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man franchise, calls it "a game-changer. I think it's the future." If that is so, it seems to me the movies are in very deep trouble.
Virtually every glowing review I've read of Avatar has conceded its script failings, but given it five stars anyway, as if derivative, hokey storytelling and banal dialogue are trivial goofs not fundamental flaws.
Cameron assured us, in a Newsweek interview reprinted in the Herald print edition last weekend, that "it's about storytelling", but this is a film in which story doesn't just take a back seat; it barely gets on board.
In narrative terms Avatar is not the future of filmmaking, it's the distant past. Narratively and in a host of visual references, it pillages every movie Cameron can remember seeing (or making), from Shane and The Magnificent Seven to Transformers and Star Wars, from the Alien and Terminator movies to Bambi.
The film's defenders will say it is simply paying homage, but it's a thin line between homage and pastiche: one's an artistic flourish and the other is a failure of imagination. Lost in a technical wonderland, the filmmakers have forgotten the one thing the movies are meant to do: spin us an original yarn.
The story it does tell is riddled with holes: the catastrophic felling of the Tree of Souls becomes, within a few minutes, a mild inconvenience; bombs powerful enough to obliterate Na'vi civilisation cause only moderate damage when they explode in an aircraft a few dozen metres from their target.
As inanity piles on implausibility (who came up with the idea of a tree people whose tails are not prehensile?), we are faced with cringingly stereotypical noble savages who apparently know the meaning of life but still must be saved by the lantern-jawed Marine.
Worst of all, the film cutely peddles the virtues of eco-friendly indigenous wisdom but Cameron - a little like George W. Bush, really - can't resist the temptation to spend the last third of the movie blowing shit up.
No matter, you may say: let's forget Cameron's protestations about "storytelling"; it's about the 3D. But here, too, the film is so much less than it appears.
There is no question that the motion capture in Avatar is better than in the Rings movies (personally, I thought Gollum's movements clunkier than Goofy's) but much of the time it's artifice for artifice's sake.
When a 2D film interposes a palm frond, say, between viewer and subject, it serves a narrative purpose: to show that someone is obscured, say, or hiding. Here, such a shot only screams "Look what I can do! Look at me!"
By its show-off profusion, this technical wizardry subverts imagination rather than enhancing it. The technology is not in the service of the film, but vice versa; the film is less important than the filmmaking. Little wonder that screenings open with an advertisement for the spin-off video game.
Meanwhile, the 25 per cent of the population like me who wear spectacles are denied the promised "immersive" experience, because the special 3D glasses they give you at the door don't fit.
In that Newsweek interview, Jackson remarks, with no apparent sense of irony, on the age of the big-budget, high-tech blockbuster that we live in, that "it almost doesn't matter if the film is a good film or a bad film".
Avatar would seem to prove the depressing truth of that.By Peter Calder Email Peter