The King of the World sets his sights on creating another world entirely in “Avatar,” and it’s very much a place worth visiting. The most expensive and technically ambitious film ever made, James Cameron’s long-gestating epic pitting Earthly despoilers against a forest-dwelling alien race delivers unique spectacle, breathtaking sights, narrative excitement and an overarching anti-imperialist, back-to-nature theme that will play very well around the world, and yet is rather ironic coming from such a technology-driven picture. Twelve years after “Titanic,” which still stands as the all-time B.O. champ, Cameron delivers again with a film of universal appeal that just about everyone who ever goes to the movies will need to see.
Cameron reportedly wrote the story, if not the full script, for “Avatar” at least 15 years ago but decided he had to wait until visual effects capabilities advanced sufficiently to credibly render his imagined world and its inhabitants. On this fundamental level, the picture is a triumph; it’s all of a piece, in no way looking like a vague mish-mash of live-action, CGI backdrops, animation, performance capture and post-production effects. On top of that, the 3D is agreeably unemphatic, drawing the viewer into the action without calling attention to itself. The third dimension functions as an enhancement, not a raison d’etre, so the film will look perfectly fine without it. (When it opens domestically on Dec. 15, approximately 2100 screens will feature 3D, with another 1200 in 2D.)
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Then there’s the appearance of the indigenous Na’vi clan. In the wake of the still photographs, trailers and 15-minute appetizer offered up by Fox in recent months, a certain wait-and-see reaction could be felt that raised mild doubts about how physically appealing the protagonists would be. But once they’re introduced in the context of the picture, these blue-skinned, yellow-eyed creatures quickly become captivating, even sexy, with their rangy height, slim and elongated bodies and skimpy wardrobe, and the grace and dexterity with which they move.
A few more lines of exposition might have helped explain why, in the year 2154 (according to the press notes), Earthlings, represented exclusively, for some reason, by the United States armed forces, need to travel light years away to Pandora to mine a precious mineral that will help rescue the planet from ecological disaster. (Does the U.S. now rule the world? Or is this nation, exclusively, concerned about the environment? Is it the only country left? Or is it simply the best villain for global consumption?)
After the death of his identical-twin scientist brother, wheelchair-bound former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes his place to become an Avatar, a hybrid being that combines human DNA with that of the Na’vi; achieving the Avatar status occurs under lab conditions, with the subject experiencing his or her alternate state as if in a dream. The official hope is that negotiations can help persuade the natives to move aside and allow further exploitation of their land, although hawkish mission commander Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) enlists the gung ho Jake’s help as his personal military spy.
Early glimpses of the intergalactic spaceship, weightless crew members and Avatars floating in liquid-filled cylinders are mere teasers for the wonders awaiting on Pandora itself. Unlike most sci-fi and action films, which seem compelled by formula to kick off with a slam-bang opening and then punctuate things with more mayhem every 20 minutes or so, “Avatar” more gently escorts the viewer into its new world while utilizing a classical three-act structure.
Unavoidable Vietnam vibes emanate from the scenes of futuristic choppers descending upon the verdant jungles and mountainsides of Pandora, a land filled with exotic insects, giant airborne reptiles and birds, dinosaur-like beasts and fearsome, dog-like attack animals. Separated from his scientific companion and fellow Avatar Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and stranded at night, Jake is rescued from becoming a midnight snack by Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who subsequently shows the interloper around and very gradually warms to him as he demonstrates an aptitude for native ways.
Cameron’s extensive experience on deep-water ocean dives, which resulted in a couple of Imax 3D documentaries, no doubt influenced the glowing, luminous nature of some of the plant life and floating seeds that waft through the environment’s atmosphere, while the grander landscapes offer staggering vistas of places that are perhaps most reminiscent of South America, just as the Na’vi most strongly call to mind the natives of the Americas in their customs and tribal manners. For their language, which is extensively spoken with subtitled translation, Cameron had a professor, Paul Frommer, invent a tongue of more than 1,000 words from scratch, although Neytiri, among others, has previously learned pretty good English from Grace.
Although the young Na’vi males resent him, Jake learns quickly and earns his stripes by successfully piloting a giant flying banshee. After three months, however, just as the colonel is ready to send his young charge back home, Jake crosses over and, inspired by his intimacy with Neytiri, goes native. It’s “A Man Called Horse” all over again, with Jake, believing he can help the clan repel the invaders, taking up the role of a resistance leader against overwhelming odds.
Final stretch is devoted to the ferocious battle between the Earthly maurauders, with their huge airborne battleships and mighty arsenal, and the nearly naked home team, armed mostly with bows and arrows. Despite the latter fighting on friendly terrain, the mismatch is just too great, and the way things pan out strikes the one somewhat discordant dramatic note in the picture, resulting in a bit of final-reel deflation; surely, a more complex but believable climax and aftermath could have been found.
Thematically, the film also plays too simplistically into stereotypical evil-white-empire/virtuous-native cliches, especially since the invaders are presumably on an environmental rescue mission on behalf of the entire world, not just the U.S. Script is rooted very much in a contemporary eco-green mindset, which makes its positions and the sympathies it encourages entirely predictable and unchallenging.
On an experiential level, however, “Avatar” is all-enveloping and transporting, with Cameron & Co.’s years of R&D paying off with a film that, as his work has done before, raises the technical bar and throws down a challenge for the many other filmmakers toiling in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. The lead team from Weta in New Zealand as well as the numerous other visual-effects and animation firms involved have done marvelous and exacting work, a compliment that extends to every other craft and technical contribution on view.
Playing a grunt in a crewcut before his transformation, Worthington is tough, gruff and assertive as the genetic pioneer turned insurrectionist, while Saldana proves her mettle as yet another kickass Cameron heroine. Lang, already seen to great advantage this year in “Public Enemies,” is a relentless militarist par excellence, while Weaver, looking great wearing a Stanford T-shirt, no doubt a personal touch by the alum, is wonderfully authoritative as a scientist so unimpeachable that she can get away with smoking on board an intergalactic spaceship.