Twelve years after Titanic, James Cameron returns with the eagerly anticipated Avatar. Set in the year 2154, a Haliburton-esque company named SECFOR is mining the planet of Pandora for a rock-like natural resource that is extraordinarily valuable on Earth. However, they have run into problems with the Na’vi, an indigenous people inhabiting the world. They are a sentient (though primitive) race, averaging 10-feet in height with blue skin and tails and are extremely strong. The humans are attempting to negotiate with the Na’vi by using avatars: creatures created by combining human and Na’vi DNA and controlled by using a mental link. The thought being if the natives can interact with a species that looks like them, they’ll be more willing to relinquish control of their natural resources. Into this geo-political nightmare comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine whose twin brother was set to take part in the Avatar project before he was unexpectedly killed. The avatars are inordinately expensive and, since each one is created to work with a specific DNA, Jake is a perfect match for his brother’s avatar. In an effort to salvage their investment, SECFOR decides to allow Jake to fill his brother’s shoes. [morelink]
Once Jake arrives “in-country,” he meets Marine-turned-mercenary Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch, fed up with relying on seemingly unending diplomatic measures, wants nothing more than to seize the planet by force. But the avatar project is controlled by Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who is decidedly more peace-minded. As luck would have it Jake, our completely untrained and unqualified hero, is a natural at operating avatars and ingratiating himself with Na’vi. And, as irony would have it, the more time he spends on this new world, the less interested he is in his own.
Much of the reason for the delay between Titanic and Avatar is that Cameron has been waiting for technology to catch up with his vision. And make no mistake, he has a vision. The planet of Pandora is lushly rendered in meticulous detail. He’s spent the better part of a decade working to take CGI, motion-capture and 3D to the next level…and he’s succeeded. I’ve written before how I have difficulty viewing 3D. It has never worked for me (it’s as if I have the 3D equivalent of “color blindness”). So I’m reluctantly forced to rely on the reaction of others at the screening and it appeared unanimous that the 3D effects are, not only amazing, but potentially revolutionary. And even without the aid of 3D technology, the visuals are stunning. Pandora is as well thought-out and designed as any sci-fi world ever seen on the silver screen. It’s entirely populated by with its own unique vegetation and life-forms. And the Na’vi, wholly depicted in CGI mind you, interact fluidly with the real-life actors. Large swaths of the film are completely depicted in CGI, yet the film never feels animated. It is truly a wonder to behold. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the film is hampered by a script that is almost laughably rudimentary.
Avatar is operating from the all too typical point-of-view that any and all “primitive” cultures are inherently morally superior to our own. (The film’s essential conflict is remarkably similar to the dreary animated kid-flick Battle for Terra that came out earlier this year.) The Na’vi are the sort of “noble savage” that are often overly-romanticized in films and literature. Unencumbered by the decadence of modernity, they are “at one” with nature; living a life of hunting and gathering, free from pressures of civilization as we know it. That’s all well and good until somebody gets malaria. At which point, I’d like some technology please.
For villains, Cameron goes to the same well Hollywood seems to always use – big business and the military. The film is an obvious anti-imperialist allegory from the get-go, but the final half-hour is remarkably heavy-handed. Without giving away too much, it devolves into an anti-Bush screed going so far as to have the Quaritch actually use language like “fight terror with terror,” “shock and awe,” and “pre-emptive strike”. It makes Triumph of the Will look positively subtle.
Ultimately, the movie’s biggest sin is that it simply forgets to have fun. Everything is sooooo deadly serious. There are neither moments of levity nor witty dialog to speak of. Don’t forget, it was Cameron who gave us the convoluted, but fun to dissect, mythology of The Terminator; a movie that managed to be fun even as they were fighting (and failing) to prevent a nuclear holocaust. There’s none of that here. But it sure looks pretty.