Every once in a while, I give in to the urge to go see a movie just because it’s the movie that everybody seems to be talking about. That’s how I ended up seeing Avatar today, and I figure I’ve done my duty by obligatory movies this year (so — no Inglorious Basterds or The Road for me; I guess, relatively speaking, this one was pretty painless). I came away from the movie disappointed, but I should clarify that it wasn’t a “failed to live up to the buzz” sort of disappointed; I’d heard enough buzz both ways (thumbs up on the visual effects, thumbs mostly down on the story) that they mostly canceled out.

What the movie failed to live up to, for me, was its own set-up in the first 30-40 minutes. Sad to say, this is hardly unique. A lot of movies these days only seem to need a solid first act to get a greenlight, and then charge their way willy-nilly through everything else. (Sidenote: one of the things that continues to impress me, as I think back on Iron Man is the way it keeps going and actually picks up steam after the first forty minutes of origin story; it also probably has the best last-thirty-seconds of any action movie ever but that’s a post I’ve already written).

Anyway, the setup for Avatar looks really (surprisingly) solid. Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives at an Earth outpost on an alien planet, to participate in an experimental program, taking the place of his recently-deceased identical twin brother. The program will require Sully to act as a remote pilot for a genetically-engineered “avatar” created by mixing his DNA (actually his twin’s, but Sully will do in a pinch) with that of one of the planet’s indigenous lifeforms, the Na’vi. People at the base are fighting for control of the program, including characters who represent scientific (Sigourney Weaver), corporate (Giovanni Ribisi), and military (Stephen Lang) interests.

Here is what I think about this premise for a movie: it is awesome, especially when you factor in that it was written and directed by James Cameron, who made Aliens. That movie, which pinned Weaver’s Ripley between the corruption and incompetence of the military-industrial complex on one side, and the unforgiving violence of the parasitic aliens on the other, trod a lot of the thematic ground that the first act of Avatar seems to set up. But Avatar adds another wrinkle, by presenting the Na’vi as intelligent beings with their own distinct culture, and then sending Sully to go live among them.

You might think that this difference would add to the complexity of the story. Perhaps the scientific/military/corporate splits within human culture could find their own parallels among the Na’vi. Perhaps Sully — who’s essentially in the position of an undercover informer in a Mafia movie, except that the people he’s spying on aren’t criminals — would struggle with the conflicting demands on his loyalty, his own identity as a human, and his attachment to the brother whose death sent him on this unlikely mission. Or perhaps Sully could spend large stretches of the movie cavorting with and making doe eyes at an alien princess in a storyline that culminates when he rides a fucking dragon. You can probably guess where this is going.

There’s been a lot said about the problematic racial and cultural assumptions underlying Avatar. If you’re not familiar, you can see Annalee Newitz’s smart and thought-provoking piece When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?, and/or Devin Faraci’s followup about why the conversation matters. I’d already absorbed these commentaries before I saw the film, and they’re not really what I want to get into here (though I think Annalee’s point about Avatar perpetuating wrongheaded portrayals of indigenous peoples as “noble savages” is hard to argue against, I respect that my readers may feel differently; I just don’t particularly want to argue it here — that’s why I link to the other places where this conversation is going on). What surprised and disappointed me, on viewing, is that Cameron actually started making quite an interesting and complex movie, and at some point gave it up in favor of simplistic characterizations (it’s not only that the native characters are never distinguished in interesting ways, but that after the first 30 minutes or so, the humans aren’t either), and fancy special effects.

And oh yes, about those effects. . . I wish I had something to say about them, I do. But about the only reaction I had to seeing the movie in 3D was, “Maybe I need a new prescription for my glasses.” I just plain couldn’t follow a lot of what was happening, visually. It’s entirely possible that it is just me — I’m not ruling out that I do need new glasses — but I watched Up and Monsters & Aliens in 3D this summer with no problem. I’m curious to hear if anybody else had trouble with the Avatar 3D, or if I was just out of luck. I don’t know if seeing the thing properly would have made up to me for the essential stupidity of the story, but at this point I guess I’ll never know.

I was too worn out by the Avatar experience to see Sherlock Holmes, so I’ll have to give that one a shot later.