“Avatar” is already out in theaters and shows no signs of slowing down at the box office. I usually don’t review films after the opening weekend (I missed the press screening because it happened on the same day that I was fulfilling my rock destiny), but I’ve had several requests for this one, so here it goes:
You already know that “Avatar” is the much-hyped, long-gestating James Cameron project that spotlights a war between desperate humans and the Na’vi, natives from an otherworldly planet called Pandora.
Besides the revolutionary motion-capture technology that allowed Cameron to see his real-life actors as CGI-created Na’vi while shooting, “Avatar” sports expansive, wholly believable computer-generated scenes that make up a major portion of the movie.The detail of this palette, combined with state-of-the-art immersive 3D (not gimmicky throw-stuff-at-the-screen type shots), makes “Avatar” a visual wonder. (Take it from me, what looked like bad videogame graphics on small-screen ads and trailers is quite elaborately rendered once you see it on a giant IMAX screen.)
But you already knew that, right?
What amazes me about James Cameron here (and to a lesser extent with 1997′s overbudgeted told-you-so triumph “Titanic”) is what amazes me about George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien (and, by extension, Peter Jackson): These men were able to tackle the power of myth head-on and come out with huge epic films and books that recreated entire worlds. They then filled those worlds with immediately recognizable archetypes and put their protagonists through the adventure of a lifetime.And somehow, despite the abundant stereotypes and cliches (and a long list of other filmmakers who’ve tried the same thing and failed), the stories work.
Cameron has a worthy hero: Sam Worthington is sympathetic and subtle (as subtle as you can be in a movie with themes this big) as a paraplegic ex-Marine named Jake Sully who experiences what it’s like to walk again as his consciousness is uploaded into the body of a Na’vi avatar. Screw that–the guy does more than walk. He runs for miles, jumps off cliffs, climbs enormous trees, and rides on the back of magnificent winged creatures. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
That in itself is a great key to why this movie has such mass appeal. “Avatar” taps into a very modern, seemingly not-too-far-off fantasy. It’s the “virtual reality” idea that anyone anywhere could become someone (or something) else and experience three-dimensional movement and feeling in a completely foreign world. It feels so real in this movie; the CGI Na’vi bodies so corporeal, that maybe, just maybe the technology is not too far down the road. (I have read recently about some uber-fans of the film that have expressed a kind of depression when they come down from the movie’s high and have to face facts that Pandora isn’t real!) This is big wish-fulfillment stuff here, kids.
Cameron veteran Sigourney Weaver (“Aliens”) lends credibility and a little gravitas to the movie as a human scientist studying the Na’vi, while Giovanni Ribisi (as a corporate bureaucrat) and Stephen Lang (as a gung-ho warring Colonel) are on hand to play the typical one-dimensional bad guys that come with this kind of storytelling.
Of course, Ribisi and Lang are no Darth Vader, but Cameron’s got a bigger villain in mind; one that President Eisenhower warned us about on his way out of office way back in 1961–the entire U.S. Military-Industrial Complex.
Enter “The Movie’s Politics,” stage left:
Let’s summarize: Unobtainium is a rare mineral with anti-gravitational properties that the U.S. needs to allow the citizens of an environmentally ruined Earth to leave that dried-up rock and colonize other planets. Is it the government trying to chop down all the trees in the Pandoran rainforest to extract this element? Nope. It’s a corporation whose ultimate goal is to exploit the land for it’s non-renewable energy.Hmmm…doesn’t sound that much like science fiction to me. That’s one of the reasons the movie hits home on a certain level with mass audiences.
As humans, we are familiar with ourselves and therefore always yearn for “the other,” and that’s exactly what Jake gets in this fantasy; one where good and evil are black and white. (I’m NOT talking literally here, although I making that point wouldn’t be too much of a stretch either.)
As it’s been pointed out, Jake’s journey is nothing new. He is inundated with Na’vi culture. Like Kevin Costner in “Dances With Wolves” or Pocahontas, he is the stranger in a strange land. That is, until he (the noble white man) becomes one of the Na’vi. Then his allegiance changes.
Besides all this, the film has a serious Buddhist slant: “Everything is connected.” In “Avatar,” that idea is as literal as it gets. As the Na’vi stride through Pandora’s forest, their bare feet light up the ground beneath them, a visual representation of this idea. Trees are spiritual kin to the Na’vi. They are tall, noble extensions of the rainforest-like planet and form a kind of all-encompassing exoskeleton. The ends of the Na’vi’s long ponytails have strands that are in constant motion; they’re alive with a certain energy and literally tie together with those of the flying beasts to create a kind of symbiosis.
As silly and obvious as some of this may sound, like Lucas and Jackson before him, Cameron plays it completely straight. It’s the only way to tell this kind of story. If the characters were winking and self-aware, it would distract us. As Jake experiences the ultimate hero’s journey, all the supporting characters (including his Na’vi guide and love interest, voiced and acted underneath layers of CGI wizardry by Zoe Saldana) are there to do just that–support his journey and play their intended part.
In other words, there is nothing new in the story department of “Avatar,” but let’s give it some credit for tapping into a cultural zeitgeist of sorts (especially with everyone giving so much undue credit to “Up in the Air” for the same thing) and approaching its well-worn story with renewed technical pizazz.This kind of movie has been made before. This kind of movie will be made again. But right now, it works. It’s immersive. It’s transportive. (For the main character, it’s transformative.)
Isn’t that what good movies do?