“Avatar”: a spectacle in search of a story

The Floating Mountains of Pandora, just one of the wonders of “Avatar” (Images courtesy 20th Century Fox)

I left “Avatar” scratching my head a little. The movie is breathtaking. Director James Cameron and his crew have created a stunningly beautiful film, filled with images of fantastic animals, and incredible landscapes. For people of my age they conjure fond memories of the Roger Dean illustrations on Yes albums from the 1970s. What’s more the visual feast just keeps coming at you for almost three hours and in 3D too.

The headscratcher is for all the money spent on this film, hundreds of millions reportedly, why wasn’t some of that money spent on creating a better story?

It starts out with such promise: a marine who uses a wheelchair after some vaguely defined incident in his past finds himself transported to another world. He’s there because he has the same genetic make-up as his scientist brother who trained to be an avatar driver to explore this planet, but was murdered. The avatars are very expensive and built specifically for each driver, so it’s a lucky break for the human explorers to find someone who can take over the job.

Thus the grunt finds himself reborn inside the 10 foot tall body of a Na’vi warrior, complete with blue skin and a tail. He sets off and soon finds himself caught between the mining company from Earth desperate to get at the minerals under the Na’vi’s sacred sites, and the Na’vi who he grows to respect and love.

It’s not that the “Avatar” plot doesn’t hold together. It’s just predictable. Perhaps huge battle scenes are inescapable in movies like this, but it would have so wonderful to have them come up with some other way of dealing with the conflict. Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” deals with many of the same issues as “Avatar” and came up with a much more novel solution to the conflict.

This is the second time in recent months that a movie with incredible visuals has been lacking a spectacular script. “9” suffered the same fate, although at a much smaller cost.

“Avatar” is definitely worth seeing, on as large a screen as possible, and preferably in 3D. But it’s tantalizing to think about what might have been. And maybe that’s just what we have to hope for in the future.