I am stunned and awed by Avatar, James Cameron's new epic. It defies the rules. This is a film with little dialogue, a thin plot, and a predictable end. Every fiber of it is constructed for a mass audience, from the cheesy one-liners to the giant battle at the end. Yet somehow Cameron pulls off the impossible. With Avatar, he has made a brilliant science fiction story (or is it fantasy?) palatable for almost anybody and he's done it, not by showing giant transforming robots with gold teeth and wrecking ball gonads, but by creating an alien world so complete and intensely beautiful that you're forced to separate your eyes from your mind and just enjoy the ride.
The concept is both complicated and simple. In the future (about 140 years) humans have learned space travel and have found life on another planet called Pandora. We don't know much about our future people, but we know they are American, and just as conflicted as we are. The science folks want to study the planet and its sentient inhabitants, 12-foot-tall blue people called the Na'vi, while the corporation, with the help of the U.S. Marines, wants to destroy the planet mining a metal called 'unobtainium,' which is worth around $20 million dollars an ounce, or some ridiculous figure like that.
We never learn what purpose unobtainium serves or why it's worth so much. I get the feeling it's a lot like gold, which has no intrinsic value, only what we're willing to pay for it. In one great episode of the Twilight Zone, a group of men hoard gold and cryogenically freeze themselves in time, waking up many years later. They had killed and murdered one another to hoard this gold, but in the future it was completely worthless, humans having figured out a way to create it artificially. Unobtainium, it seems, is not able to be created in a lab. Maybe 20 million dollars is how much a necklace costs in 140 years? Unobtainium could be the blood diamonds of the future.
Anyway, the plot centers around one tribe of Na'vi who happen to be living on a huge deposit of valuable unobtainium. The corporation/military, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), gives the scientists time to work out a 'diplomatic' solution to the problem, because it looks bad politically to mow over a few hundred people. But they're impatient, and want to obtain their unobtainium.
Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is like a mix between Alien ass-kicking Ripley and Dian Fossey from Gorillas in the Mist. She leads a team that remotely control genetically created Na'vi called 'avatars,' kind of like they do in The Matrix. It's odd and abstract, as we learn through Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who joins the science team and gets an avatar of his own and explores Pandora with a new body. Through him, we experience Cameron and his art teams' incredible imagination. Everything is huge, colorful, and deadly on Pandora. Even the air is unbreathable to humans.
I've never seen anything like Pandora. It's a luscious world that makes Peter Jackson's Middle Earth look like an indoor gymnasium. The only film that does resemble it is Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, an animated film that shares many similarities with Avatar. For the first 90 minutes or so, we jump and fly around Pandora's jungle, lamenting when Jake Sully has to unplug himself as much as he does. Cameron's use of 3D is the best I've seen yet, primarily because it isn't the focus of the film. Like UP, Cameron subtly uses 3D to enhance the depth of the forest or speed of an aircraft; he doesn't just throw things at the screen like The Final Destination. The 3D glasses do darken the image somewhat and scenes of fast motion seemed a bit blurred. I recommend sitting in the middle of the theater, as the 3D effect doesn't work as well if you're not staring directly at the screen. I plan to see the film again in 2D.
I don't have many complaints about the film, but it's a bit jarring how spiritual and tribal the Na'vi are. They're meant to resemble Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but Cameron overdoes it. Composer James Horners' pieces are a bit too stereotypically tribal at times, and I question the necessity for all of the Na'vi to be played by Native American and black actors and almost all of the humans to be white. Zoe Saldana and others do a great job, but it's a bit sad Cameron has to go this far to make his point. It's true historically, sure, but this is the future and this is an alien race. I would hope we'd be a more diversely cruel nation by then, at the very least. These are minor complaints, at most.
I find it hard to compare Avatar to other films. It is smart, but doesn't intend to be intellectual. It lays its allegories and allusions out for all to see, but doesn't rely on them. More than any film I can remember, save for Wall-E, this is a purely visual and emotional film. It takes us to a new place with the purity and drive only a filmmaker like Cameron can achieve. More so than the original Star Wars trilogy, this is a film for the senses.
Avatar is an encapsulating visceral adventure unlike anything else and I highly recommend it. Like Roger Ebert, I'm glad there is someone who knows how to use $350 million (rumored) dollars. I was critical of Cameron before, but watching it, I could count every penny. Well spent.
Trailer and Poster