reviewed by Marc Glassman
James Cameron, director, writer and co-producer. Starring: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Na’vi Princess Neytiri), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Michelle Rodriquez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (RDA Administrator Parker Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm Spellman), Wes Studi (King Eytucan), C.C.H. Pounder (Queen Mo’at)
It was always going to take a lot to top Titanic but lord knows James Cameron has the ego and the talent to go for something even more spectacular. From the shocking moment nearly twelve years ago when the Canadian boy who had turned into a Hollywood superstar director grabbed the last of the Oscars the night of his big sweep and shouted “Now I’m on top of the world!,” a global audience (and any cinema going deities) has been anticipating his next move.
With Avatar, he’s done it. Using the latest technological updates in motion capture animation, stereoscopic cameras, 3-D visuals and computer imagery, Cameron has made a film that is as close to Aldous Huxley’s notion of “feelies” as has ever been attempted on the screen. Welcome to the Brave New World. James Cameron has created something new, giving us a wild roller coaster ride into a fantasy world that seems absolutely real.
What he’s forgotten to do is create a plot that matches his 21st century visuals and sound. The story Cameron has come up with was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and more obviously John Carter of Mars, but one can also evoke the names of Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard while recounting this latest iteration of “white man’s burden.” Once again, we are in a pulpy sphere where the enlightened “civilized” explorer recognizes the profundity of natives living in a natural state and decides to live with them. When his own kind threatens their way of life, this uber-male, sensitive but still heroic, leads the charge to save them—because, of course, they can’t do it themselves.
To give Cameron credit, the world he’s created is wonderfully well imagined. Pandora—what a name!—is inhabited by the Na’vi, large blue creatures, quite humanoid but with cat’s eyes and slinky tails, who live in a verdant forest filled with beautiful but often terrifying creatures. They travel distances by riding an ikran or direhorse, a six legged armoured creature or flying huge, dangerous pa’lis or winged banshees. Their goddess Eyra manifests herself through seeds and trees and other “growing” elements in the universe. When Na’vis die, their spirit goes to a Tree of Souls and each tribe is connected through the roots of the trees that grow in their region.
Into this unspoiled paradise comes Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine, who has been given a second lease on life due to the murder of his twin brother, a scientist who was about embark on a journey to Pandora. The military and science establishment had been creating avatars, doubles of the Na’vi tribe, who could properly inhabit Pandora. (The atmosphere is toxic for regular Earth dwellers). With his twin dead and Jake’s DNA a match, the crippled ex-soldier is employed to be a fully functioning Na’vi, with his spirit moving into his avatar whenever his body is asleep.
It’s the perfect dream life for Jake—at first. He meets the inevitable gorgeous native princess—what Romantic pulp novel didn’t have one? Though the Na’vi Princess Neytiri fights against it, she falls for Jake as she trains him in the ways of her People. All would be wonderful except for one thing: the purpose of the Earthlings mission on Pandora is to extract unobtainium (love the word!), a precious mineral worth more than its weight in Na’vi lives.
So the ancient plot is brought out again. In a clear echo of Iraq and a more guarded reference to the cavalry vs. the “Indians,” the military in the guise of badass Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch attacks the Na’vis. His only desire is to get at the metal; what does he care about an ancient way of life? Quicker than you can say “Jake to the rescue,” the “turncoat” Na’vi avatar leads his new people against the military. It’s testosterone Earthlings vs. tree hugging Natives.
Yep, the ending is all action, with lots of death and destruction. James Cameron gives us a bit of everything in Avatar: Buddhism, indigenous folklore, romance, identity crises, science vs. military, and lots of wish fulfillment.
Does he get it right? By and large, yes. This will be a huge hit, paying back its more than $250 million investment. But will it win a truckload of Oscars? In every “effects” category—yes. But is this another Titanic? Nope. Liberal Hollywood will see through Cameron’s manipulative script this time. But just like Birth of a Nation, Avatar will be viewed for decades for its technical achievements, even if there is an implied racism in the content.