The general public's reaction to Avatar baffles me a little bit. While I thought it was pretty good (though with serious reservations about its thematic content), it wasn't a movie that moved me in the least. I am aware that my emotional reaction to a film is by no means definitive, but I have had trouble understanding people's positions when discussing the film: I have heard it described, with genuine enthusiasm and not a shred of irony, as "life-changing." I have met, in real life, a person who wants to learn to speak Na'vi. There is a message board for people who need support to cope with the fact that Pandora isn't real. Forgive me for being a little blunt here, but what the fuck?
Avatar is an action movie. It is composed of nothing but pulpy science fiction cliches. I mean, yeah, the cliches are deployed effectively (and anybody who thinks you can't string together a good movie out of completely unoriginal material needs to take a look at Reservoir Dogs) but Avatar offers nothing in the way of original content. There is no heart beating behind the beautiful vistas and action-packed setpieces, no soul in the exquisitely rendered eyes of the Na'vi. Such an overwhelming emotional response to a movie that is so, well, standard, is even more confusing in a year that has seen so many genuinely affecting movies, from blockbusters (Up, District 9, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) to small films (Adventureland, Coraline, World's Greatest Dad). Christ, Terminator Salvation had a much stronger emotional throughline than Avatar did.
Devin Faraci of CHUD.com has posited an interesting explanation for the massive emotional response the public seems to have to the movie. Basically, the hypothesis is that the blandness of Avatar's story, and especially of its hero (and Jake Sully is nothing if not bland) is intentional. Far from being a product of lazy writing, Avatar was designed from the ground up not to be a unique or singular story but to be a template onto which the viewer can project his or her own experience, using familiar archetypes to pull the audience into its fantastical world. The people who have a strong reaction to Avatar, then, are really reacting to their own emotional experience through the prism of the movie, but getting the feeling that the movie itself is so emotionally charged. The emotional content of Avatar is, according to this position, nothing more than a grand but carefully orchestrated illusion.
While I can't say that I think the film is so simple as to be summed up entirely by this explanation (James Cameron really was trying to get a few points across) I do think that there really is something to it. Cameron is a savvy guy, he knows how to craft a blockbuster, and between Avatar and Titanic he may have stumbled upon a formula for success: combine snappy storytelling, tried and true plot archetypes, and cutting-edge special effects with a lead (or two) that is more or less a "blank slate" for the audience to project themselves onto and put it together with a craftsman's assured hand and you've got yourself a money-maker and perhaps a genuine water-cooler type phenomenon. Jack and Rose's characterizations can be more or less summed up in two words each: "poor guy" and "rich girl," respectively. Jake Sully: "crippled marine."
Savvy guy that he is, Cameron would probably never admit that this might have been his thought process in creating Avatar, especially now with all of the Oscar talk surrounding the film, but the group of creators behind another recent science fiction cash cow have been much more candid. Bungie, the developers behind Microsoft's enormously successful Halo video game franchise, credit the series' protagonist Master Chief's popularity on precisely this quality. Master Chief's history is mysterious and his face is never seen in the games, allowing the player to project him- or herself entirely onto the character, creating a good sense of connection to the game world while playing. This is a great approach to game design: Master Chief is at once an iconic character and a personal one to every person who plays a Halo game.
As an approach to filmmaking, I'm not so sure. The jury is still out as to whether or not games are art, but if they are they are certainly a very different medium than film, the narrative tools used as different from those in movies as those in movies are from literature. It's obviously an exploitative approach to making a movie, and perhaps a rather cynical one as well. Plenty of very good movies have been made with cynical exploitation in mind. Is this approach a valid one? I don't know.