I’ve been pretty surprised by the generally positive reaction to Avatar — genuinely impressive technical achievements aside, it’s not much of a movie.
UPDATE: I like John Podhoretz’s take quite a bit (though, as a diehard Michael Mann fan, I’m probably less concerned about the lack of jokes than he 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?