Avatar is a visually astonishing spectacle that demands being witnessed on the big screen. Its aesthetics tower considerably over its predictable storyline and mediocre dialogue, but James Cameron deserves props for seamlessly blending live action, 3D and digital effects in creating his own virtual Eden, the planet Pandora.
It's been two hours since I saw the sneak preview, but lingering images of brilliantly illuminated translucent plants, strangely exotic and hostile creatures, flying mountains with waterfalls, and the big blue Na'vi inhabitants of Pandora still flicker in my mind like visual poetry.
James Cameron, Oscar winning director of Titanic and self proclaimed "King of the World," spent the GDP of a third world country, nearly $500 million, and a dozen years laboring on his dream project ultimately creating the technology he needed to fulfill his ambitious vision. His 3D, "performance capture" technique - whereby he directs live actors who are then digitally rendered like Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum in Lord of the Rings - is the new criterion for the medium, infusing the digital creations with such realism that most of the time you forget you're looking at a painting.
For those expecting introspective and nuanced character arcs, intellectually stimulating narratives and memorable dialogue, you might surf your Netflix queue this weekend instead. Although Cameron has been slammed for his perfunctory dialogue since Titanic, his characters [both real and digital] have usually been far more human, likable and believable than the soulless caricatures paraded on screen in the painful Transformer movies directed by Michael Bay. Cameron helped Sigourney Weaver get a rare Oscar nomination for playing an action heroine in Aliens, made us care about Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's marriage in The Abyss, and inspired us to root for an Austrian, killing robot who is now terminating the state of California as Governor. This is not a carte blanche excuse for some of the truly substandard dialogue and storyboard characters you'll witness in Avatar. However, it is necessary to remind ourselves that Cameron always elevates - at least technologically - the blockbuster genre and cinematic medium, which far too often falls prey to gratuitous explosion porn, a redundant heavy metal soundtrack, and seizure inducing spastic editing.
In Avatar, we follow the journey of our protagonist Jake, played ably by Australian actor Sam Worthington, sporting a very dodgy American accent, a paralyzed marine grunt turned scientific guinea pig who "consciously" enters and physically controls his Na'vi Avatar [a synthetic version of the 10 ft tall, blue colored Pandora natives], which was created in a lab by fusing human and Na'vi DNA. He is commanded to infiltrate the Na'vi community, learn their "savage" ways, earn their trust, and report intel to his military and corporate superiors, who plan to rape and pillage the land to uncover the largest known quantities of Unobtainium, the most precious resource in the year 2154 for an energy depleted human population.
Predictably, Jake the reluctant colonizer, much like John Rolfe, falls in love with the beautiful Na'vi warrior princess and Pandoran Pocahontas, Neytiri, played exceptionally well by the athletic and expressive Zoe Saldana. After three short months under Neytiri's tutelage, Jake's avatar naturally evolves into an uber Alpha-Omega Na'vi male warrior and is welcomed to their clan as one of their own. Cameron rehashes the clichéd Hollywood trope, most recently seen in Last Samurai, of the naïve, ignorant white imperialist who befriends the savages, has a transformative epiphany, gains self awareness, mates with their hottest woman, and like a prodigy learns their fighting techniques and culture so quickly that he eventually ends up leading them.
However, Cameron's cinematic foray into "White Man Meets Alien Savage" merits some applause for the level of dignity, albeit in the form of simplified Romanticism, he affords his Native American avatars, the Na'vi. Yet, I digress, since a critical analysis of Avatar as both political and historical allegory of imperialism, whiteness and race relations merits a separate column.
As a result of his tutorial and subsequent enlightenment, Jake learns to admire and respect his initially hostile Na'vi friends and their evolved religious-philosophical ideology which preaches the necessity of respecting the interconnectedness amongst all of Pandora's living creatures. Although this initially reeks of an elementary hodgepodge "pro-green," eco-friendly, quasi Emersonian-Taoism, the detailed depths to which Cameron and his team have created this universe is quite impressive. This second act, the most visually arresting and interesting section of the nearly three hour film, spends considerable time inviting us to observe these daily rituals almost as if Cameron made a detailed National Geographic documentary of his own virtual playground.
The Na'vi have their own language - specifically created for the movie by linguists - which hopefully cannot be duplicated by human tongues, thus giving pause to Trekkies who want to become bilingual and add to their Klingon. The Na'vi's long braided hairs are essentially external dendrites that combine and connect with other living creatures, allowing them to "feel" the other's presence and thoughts. You see, the Na'vi believe in an abstract deity, "The Mother of all living things," who collects the voices and memories of departed souls and can always hear the inhabitants of her world, including the fern and moss. If you're rolling your eyes and groaning, I don't blame you, for subtlety has never been one of Cameron's narrative strengths. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn't visually enthralled by the awesome, environmental experience Cameron created, which clearly represents the heart of his emotional and passionate investment in this project.
It certainly wasn't invested in the human actors, who basically fall into three camps:
1) The corporate bureaucrats who only care for profit, personified by Giovanni Ribisi's character [who, in turn, is channeling Paul Reiser's character from Cameron's Aliens].
2) The Gung-Ho Mercenaries, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch, played with badass, steely resolve by Stephen Lang, who believes explosives, bullets and overwhelming military force should be the only form of diplomacy with the Na'vi.
3) The Hippie, Tree Hugging Humans, comprised of brilliant scientist-Na'vi conservationist Sigourney Weaver, our protagonist Jake and Fast and Furious' Michelle Rodriguez, who shows up to fly a helicopter.
In fact, the nearly 3 hour movie only drags when we are forced to spend time with the humans on their ship and away from the fantastic digital world of Pandora. If you really want to know the plot arc, I recommend seeing the three minute trailer, which pretty much gives it all away. Undoubtedly, the movie will not break new ground in traditional storytelling, but it elevates cinematic storytelling to an exciting, untapped visual apex that allows our eyes to finally experience images that were once only imaginable in our minds.