As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, Hollywood movies seem ever longer on extravagant visions and fatally short on actual visionaries. With the exponential advancements in digital technologies, entire worlds can now be summoned out of green screens and computer software, while the line between live action and animation has become a fluid border. Yet, as we sit in the darkened cinema (or, increasingly, in our living rooms), so much of what is clearly meant to dazzle us feels like a demonstration more than an application, an elaborate demo reel in search of meaning and purpose. Not a moment too soon, James Cameron returns to bridge the gap.
A decade in the rumor mill, four years in the making, and several gazillion dollars in production and marketing costs, Avatar arrives on a tide of expectation (and, in certain hellish circles of the Internet, hoped-for failure) that greets only one or two pictures an epoch. Cameron’s first narrative feature since 1997’s Titanic, it carries not only the sizable ambitions of its creator but the desires of an entire industry desperate to reassert the supremacy of movies in the crowded visual-media landscape, and of an audience, too, which wants to be wowed. And for the nearly three hours it is on-screen, Avatar is a nonstop wow.
Like several of Cameron’s previous films (Aliens, The Terminator, The Abyss), Avatar revolves around the fractious meeting of the human race with an alien one, of man with machine, and of the will of the people with the machinations of big business. And like pretty much every movie he has made, it can lay claim to giant leaps in the field of visual effects and the tools used to create them — in this case, the most seamless integration of live-action and computer-generated elements that has been achieved in a movie, as well as the most intelligent and artistic use of 3-D.
One hundred fifty-five years in the future, a distant moon, Pandora, in a far-away solar system has become ground zero for an elaborate mining operation devoted to harvesting a rare mineral, fittingly called Unobtanium, that sells for $20 million per kilo and is in high demand back on the “dying world” of planet Earth. The air there is toxic to earthly lungs, so the mining is carried out by genetically engineered surrogates (or avatars) modeled on the indigenous population of 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned humanoids (or Na’vi) and controlled, like giant marionettes, by human “drivers” ensconced in the safety of a science lab. One of those drivers, PhD scientist Tom Sully, died before he could begin his tour of duty, leaving the avatar linked to his unique DNA a useless shell. But as luck would have it, Tom has a twin brother, Jake (Australian actor Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine whose identical genes can bring the avatar back to life. Moreover, in his newly minted, remote-controlled body, Jake can walk again.
State-of-the-art bells and whistles notwithstanding, Avatar proceeds largely along the lines of a classical white-man-gone-native tale, with particularly strong echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dances With Wolves, albeit minus the latter’s laughable claims to historical accuracy and much of its hippy-dippy idealization of native people. Descending upon Pandora’s rain forest in avatar form, Jake becomes separated from the research party of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, whose avatar body restores her to svelte, Aliens-era proportions) and nearly becomes dinner for several species of ferocious fauna. Aiding his narrow escape is Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a skilled hunter from a tribe of Na’vi, known as the Omaticaya (and Cameron’s de rigueur warrior heroine). Naturally, she also turns out to be the daughter of the Omaticaya’s chief (Last of the Mohicans’ Wes Studi) and of their resident spiritualist (CCH Pounder), who reluctantly agrees to let Jake live among their people and learn their ways.
He proves a quick study, ingratiating himself among the Na’vi while reporting his findings back to both Grace and Pandora’s bellicose security head, Colonel Quaritch (played with lip-smacking relish by a veiny Stephen Lang), a latter-day Colonel Kilgore defined by the three deep scratches that sweep across the side of his face. Charged with relocating the Omaticaya from their home village, which happens to rest atop the richest Unobtanium deposit for miles around, Quaritch shows considerably less interest in diplomatic negotiation than in unleashing every weapon in his arsenal on the “savage” Na’vi, a strategy more or less supported by the government-subcontracted company (referred to as “the Company”) that employs him. “When people are sitting on shit you want, you make them your enemy,” observes Jake late in the film. As usual in Cameron’s world, and in the course of geopolitics, peace is the true Unobtanium.
Nuanced allegory this isn’t. In Avatar, human lives are spoken of as “investments” and genocidal policies are justified in the name of “fighting terror with terror.” The Company’s final battle against the Na’vi is even described by one horrified onlooker as a “shock-and-awe campaign.” All of which will doubtless result in Cameron — a Canadian by birth who reportedly withdrew his bid for American citizenship following the 2004 presidential election — being branded a political naif by critics hungry for the kill (even if all he’s really doing is recapitulating the dangerous rhetoric of the Congress floor and the corporate boardroom).
But you don’t come to a James Cameron movie for the subtlety. You come instead for the new-fashioned version of the old-fashioned spectacle, to marvel at things that have truly never been seen on a motion-picture screen before. You come to feel the way movie audiences a century ago felt upon seeing the Lumière Brothers’ Train Arriving at Ciotat Station, certain that the mighty locomotive was going to plow through the screen and into the cinema; and the way moviegoers of later generations felt at seeing the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, or upon watching a determined T-1000 terminator effortlessly morph its way through a set of prison bars. Cameron is firmly descended from that line of cine-innovators and, before them, the conjurers and carnival barkers who beckoned to audiences with top hat in hand, promising them the greatest show on Earth. It’s considerably harder for a movie to deliver on such claims in the 21st century, when we have been witness to six Star Wars movies, three The Lord of the Rings adventures and three Jurassic Parks, to say nothing of Cameron’s own oeuvre. But scene after scene, Avatar keeps raising the bar.
For starters, there is the surface of Pandora, which Cameron envisions as an impossibly shimmering jungle of iridescent sea foam and fuchsia flora that — especially in the large-screen IMAX format — seem to tickle your face as they brush past. Inhabiting that terrain alongside the Na’vi is a veritable lost world of predators and prey, from hulking, hammer-headed “titanotheres” to scaly, pantherlike “thanators” and slinky, hairless “viperwolves,” who look like the canine guardians one might find at the gates of hell. Then there are the skies above, where huge, floating mountains hang suspended in air and majestic winged creatures called banshees — or, in Na’vi, ikran — soar, Omaticaya hunters (whose ikran-taming ritual makes for one of the movie’s most thrilling set pieces) riding proudly on their backs. Virtually everything on Pandora was concocted in Cameron’s head and realized in the digital paint box, with the actors themselves giving remote-controlled performances via “performance-capture” suits that transferred their movements and expressions over to their CG avatars (making Cameron’s film, among other things, a documentary about its own making). What we see onscreen, however, isn’t the pristine plastic universe of Pixar or the crowded creaturescapes of George Lucas and Peter Jackson. Here, each Na’vi has the unique personality, expressions and physicality of a live actor, and the landscape they move through is as tactile and present as John Ford’s Monument Valley.
There were hints of something like this in the better moments of Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, where it was possible to feel an emotional connection to the huge forlorn ape. But too often in that movie, the true 800-pound gorilla seemed to be in the director’s chair, beating his CGI chest at the expense of an involving narrative. Cameron, by contrast, is a fundamentally compact storyteller who, even when he makes a three-hour movie, keeps things moving in rapid-fire bursts worthy of his former mentor, low-budget impresario Roger Corman. Given all the attention that has been and will continue to be paid to his movies’ innovations, it should also be said that he is a very good director of actors, and that a filmmaker more skilled at staging, shooting and editing screen action can scarcely be imagined.
Somewhere in Avatar, too, lie all the complexities and contradictions of Cameron himself, who pushes the envelope of technology while warning against the potential consequences of doing so, who worships heavy-duty machinery and unspoiled nature in seemingly equal measure, and who has embedded the most expensive movie of all time with a gently socialist message more persuasive than any issued by Michael Moore or Barack Obama. Above all, Cameron remains committed to the discovering of new worlds at a moment when we seem so certain that everything worth discovering already has been. At the end of a decade defined by much bellyaching about “the death of cinema” (including, on occasion, by this critic), Avatar concludes, appropriately enough, with an image of rebirth.
AVATAR | Written and directed by JAMES CAMERON | Produced by CAMERON and JON LANDAU | 20th Century Fox | Citywide