On the one hand, it has a shopworn plot, clunky dialogue, cardboard villains and heavy-handed messages about the environment and military imperialism. But on the other hand, it creates and inhabits an entirely new world to a degree I’ve never quite experienced before in a movie. The cutting-edge special effects bring to vivid life an entire ecosystem brimming with the fantastic imaginings of its creator.
That creator, of course, is James Cameron, the director of such enduring classics as The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. Cameron has spent many of the 12 years since Titanic won a crate full of Oscars and set the all-time box office record working on Avatar, specifically on the motion capture technology that allows flesh-and-blood actors to bring digital characters to life in a way that makes Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum look like a sock puppet.
Ten or even five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to make this film this way. And Cameron, as he has done throughout his career, uses those technological advances not as eye candy but in service of his story. Just as the morphing and liquid metal effects in Terminator 2 helped create a villain more slickly evil than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old-school robot and the combination of digital effects and grand-scale models sold the sinking of the Titanic, the technology behind Avatar is not so much science as art.
Avatar takes place on Pandora, a forested moon inhabited by a race of 10-foot-tall blue creatures called Na’vi who look like a cross between human beings and cats. Humans have inhabited the moon to mine its large deposits of unobtanium, most of which unfortunately rests below the large tree the Na’vi call home.
Hard-ass one-dimensional military types are all for blasting the tree, and its inhabitants, to pieces but a more diplomatic approach is favored by a group of visiting scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, back in Cameron’s fold after her turn as Ripley in Aliens). Dr. Augustine has developed the Avatar program, which allows human beings to inhabit genetically engineered Na’vi bodies by plugging in Matrix-like from a remote location. Her goal is to live among the Na’vi, learn their ways and form a partnership. Good luck with that.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paralyzed Marine recruited into the Avatar program as a replacement for his dead twin brother… because the Avatar bodies are designed at the genetic level, he’s the only one who can make use of his late brother’s vessel. He’s mostly thrilled to be able to walk again, even in a tall blue cat-man body, but before long he is learning the ways of the Na’vi and falling for a beautiful warrior named Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana, whose 2009 box office take is going to be massive following this film and Star Trek).
I’ve now spent about as much time on the film’s plot as the film itself does. Basically, this is Dances With Wolves on another planet… Dances With Aliens. Sully starts out as a double agent but quickly grows attached to the Na’vi and must choose sides in the inevitable showdown.
The scenes between Sully and Neytiri make up the middle section and are the film’s highlight. We’re introduced to Pandora’s wildlife (including six-legged horse-like creatures, massive rhinos with hammerheads and winged rodents that spin like pinwheels when bothered) and its religious practices. The Na’vi can literally plug into plants and animals… the whole ecosystem is akin to a massive computer network.
Saldana is wonderful in this role, and deserves to be the first actor nominated for a “digital” performance. Worthington, too, solidifies his status as an actor to watch (though occasionally his Aussie accent makes an appearance). The rest of the cast fares well but is largely beside the point… like Titanic, Avatar is essentially a love story wrapped up in an epic action film.
And it’s Titanic I keep coming back to when I think about where to rank Avatar in relation to other movies this year. Titanic, too, had a clunky script and cardboard villains (remember Billy Zane’s comically broad performance?) but none of that mattered because it was lifted by the romantic chemistry of its appealing lead performers and especially by the devastating recreation of that sinking ship. Titanic delivered an old-fashioned grand Hollywood experience in spades.
Avatar is not the equal of Titanic but it feels very similar. And watching the box office returns the past few days, it looks like it’s hitting a similar nerve. James Cameron has a gift for crowd-pleasing entertainment, regardless of his weaknesses as a screenwriter, and that’s a rare gift to have.
I didn’t love Avatar but I can’t quite shake it. Most telling, I find myself rooting for it. There’s something about seeing an accomplishment on this scale that is also incredibly earnest… for all the hundreds of millions spent on this film and the billion it will ultimately earn, it feels like a stab at art. And grand-scale, populist, aim-for-the-bleachers art is something filmgoers aren’t treated to very often.
I’m glad James Cameron surfaces every decade or so to show us how it’s done.