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Avatar (James Cameron, 2009, 162 min.)

A white dude, a former soldier injured in battle, goes to live with a threatened native people. He slowly gains their trust, and eventually becomes accepted as one of them. When his people threaten attack, he leads the natives in what seems like a hopeless battle for survival. The natives are ten feet tall and blue; each of them has a USB port concealed in a long braid. They call him Dances with Flying Lizards.

OK, so I’m not the first, nor the highest paid, nor the smartest critic to notice the incredibly strong similarity between Dances with Wolves and James Cameron’s 15-years-in-the-making follow-up to the biggest film of all time, 1997’s Titanic. But it’s all I could think about during the scenes where Sully (Sam Worthington, Hollywood’s latest disposable, handsome, talentless lunk), inside his big blue Na’vi body, gets to know and love the natives of this planet as much as they come to know and love him. If only those pesky military-industrial types (Stephen Lang on the military side, Giovanni Ribisi on the industrial side) would depart this idyllic paradise and look for “unobtanium” somewhere else!

It certainly looks amazing, even if the main characters are ridiculous, ten-foot-tall, expressionless, blue Gumbys. In between bouts of stabbing pain in my temples from the 3D glasses, I admired the way Cameron and co. used their 3D palette more creatively than the other 3D films of the past year or so. There’s a lot going on in the frame, and an incredible depth of field (which isn’t as obvious as it sounds). There’s inevitable blurring around the edges, and some extreme-foreground objects are distractingly transparent. And “jaw-dropping” isn’t quite excited enough to describe its effect during the flying scenes, which threaten to liberate viewers from their seats and toss them into the ceiling. It’s pure cinematic joy, like riding in a roller coaster that requires you to wear bulky glasses that pinch into the sides of your head.

But everything about the story, the setting, the dialog, and the parts that aren’t purely visual is awful. It’s actually worse than Dances with Wolves in terms of cultural imperialism. Like so many other “white guy goes back to nature” movies, it posits that the best native is in fact a white guy gone native. He was raised in the offending culture so he understands how it works, but he’s also able to learn the native culture almost instantly, become an accepted member of that culture, become a better native than the erstwhile best native (usually a young, hot-tempered man), and lead the natives into battle, either showing himself to be an honorable leader or dying valiantly in the attempt. It’s a bunch of racist hoo-haw, even if we’re dealing with made-up blue Gumbys.

Cameron, who unfortunately wrote the screenplay, produced it, edited it, and cradled every frame carefully in his hands while wearing soft leather gloves made from baby sheep, has a tin ear for dialog, a Saturday morning cartoon sense of character development, a paint-by-numbers style of plot construction, and little or no talent for directing actors. Leonardo DiCaprio’s “I see you” was one of the most laughed-at lines in a slew of laughed-at lines in Titanic, yet here Cameron has bought into his own legend and imbibed a quart of his own kool-aid: he takes the laughable and makes it mantra by turning it into the official greeting of the Na’vi. He attempts to make the film topical by bringing in some War on Terror references, some Bush quotes (“Make no mistake!”), some Iraq blunders (“shock and awe”), and a whole lot of simpering ecological idealism (which I ordinarily support, but still), but the words are wood in his actors’ mouths. These native people, who can slink completely unnoticed through the forest, choose to do battle with machine-gun-bearing giant robots by galloping straight at them on six-legged horses instead of waging a guerrilla battle that they’d have probably won with few casualties. These are merely examples. I don’t feel like going on.

I think many thought that when Cameron, who used to be a damned good action director, repeated the “I’m king of the world!” line at the 1997 Oscars that he was sort of joking. I think he was serious. He’s lost his self-knowledge; he thinks he’s a visionary. I’ll grant that he has an amazing visual flair, but the really great filmmakers recognize their weaknesses and bring in people who can stabilize their projects. He’s apparently lost the screenwriting ability that used to shine in such perfect action films as Aliens and Terminator 2, so he should understand that, and hire a real writer. What an amazing, truly revolutionary film this could have been, instead of a diverting stunt.