First things first: With ‘Avatar’, James Cameron has made the fool-hardy promise to reinvent cinema. He has succeeded. Not in changing the way we look at cinema, nor in the technological breakthroughs (though it is a trend-setter). Cameron has made a film that is primarily about form. In most films, one can separate between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ –story and execution. With ‘Avatar’, Cameron has made a densely plotted, nearly 3 hour film where the story and characters are tangential. This film is about 3D motion-capture animation. It is the goal of this film for the ‘how’ to become the ‘what’. One could say that Michael Bay films work in a similar way- but Cameron has the skill and talent to make the triumph of form over content seem like a lofty goal, not an infantile one (he is no cynic, and there’s nary a trace of irony to be found in this film).
To call the plot of ‘Avatar’ generic would be to underestimate just how ambitious its predictable and cookie-cutter plot, character, and politics are (or confused- it raises images of Rumsfeld and Cheney attacking the Sioux and Custer attacking the Iraqis). It is environmentalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonialist. But this insane mixture of clichéd, corny, bleeding-heart liberalism is not exactly a detriment to the film. The plot is actually so familiar and so predictable in every detail that it has a lame kind of timelessness to it (This movie could play anytime, anywhere and be immediately understandable). Sometimes, it doesn’t even bother fleshing out scenes- we know what this scene is about, no need to see it play out. The film’s politics are so single-minded that 9/11 becomes a tragedy of an aboriginal population, perpetrated by the American aggressor. And even that doesn’t really matter- the context is so negligible that the egregious reframing of history is completely secondary to the question of whether the image on its own works. And, boy does that image work.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s 2154, earth is empty of natural resources (it’s referenced as ‘The Dying Planet’). A mega-corporation has set up operation on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system that is rich in natural resources. In particular the rare and extremely valuable mineral known as ‘Unobtanium’ (a rare bit of levity on Cameron’s part). Trouble is, as usual- there are natives in the way. The 10-foot-tall luminescent Blue humanoid (with tails) Na’vi people have a deep connection to Pandora, and their holiest site (a sacred tree) is situated right on top of the mineral cache. In order to convince the Na’vi to move, a program called Avatar is created, where a Na’vi body is synthesized by scientists and a person can mentally control this body. The goal is to infiltrate the Na’vi and reason with them to leave.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), our hero, is a former marine who lost the use of his legs due to a combat injury. His twin brother, who has been on the Avatar project for 5 years, has died in an accident, and Jake is brought in to take over his brother’s avatar. Freed from his wheelchair while inhabiting his Na’vi body, Jakes makes the most of this time, joining the Na’vi community and courting Neytiri, the chief’s daughter (played by Zoë Seldana). Meanwhile, Quartich (Stephen Lang) the head of the human security/mercenary forces is using Jake to gain information on the Na’vi with less than peaceful plans. Jake gains the Na’vi trust, learns invaluable lessons from them, learns their language (but speaks English whenever possible) and learns how to connect with nature and the animals (literally connect- riding an animal requires an act symbolic of intercourse, not always to the animal’s liking). It’s stranger in a strange land, it’s The One, it’s a rejection of one’s own corrupt culture, it’s anti-Iraq, pro-environment….An Inconvenient Truth: A Man Called Blackwater Dances with Pocahontas in 3D.
“In 3D”— one of the most enduring cinematic gimmicks. Hitchcock did it. ‘House of Wax’ did it. ‘Jaws’ did it. We’ve had several horror and animation films in 3D recently. It is Robert Zemeckis who has been 3D’s major trumpeter in recent years. ‘A Polar Express’, ‘Beowulf’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ are all motion-capture computer animated film conceived for 3D. I saw the first two in 2D and was bored by the films as well as the filmmaking. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 3D and was kind of engaged, but forgot about it as soon as I left the theater. ‘Avatar’ –which I can’t imagine in 2D, though it is being released as such- struck me as a whole different league.
This is not 3D as a gimmick, or a genre. This is 3D as a cinematic form. The goal is not to make objects jump out at us; it is to make us closer to the images. My breath was taken with much of this film, from the early moment where Jake wakes up from hibernation along with dozens of other people…and you feel the massive depth of the chamber. This is a film conceived in 3 dimensions, it doesn’t take long till one forgets about the glasses and surrenders to the images. Never have massive spaces felt so massive. Even after ‘The Lord of the Rings’, this film feels like the effect of the opening shot of the original ‘Star Wars’ must have had when it came out. The synthesized landscapes have more weight than ever before.
Not only huge, but the landscapes are popping with life and color. Rich, glowing colors, fantastic (if evolutionary curious) creatures and an enjoyment of nature that at times felt almost projectile. Its human character may come from a typical dystopic vision of earth, but this is the rare modern science-fiction film that takes place in a vibrant Eden (Cameron is such a sincere cornball that even in the bleakest of futures he will find the most marvelous, luscious, scenario to tell his story). The Na’vi -stand-ins for every put upon indigenous population in recent history- are initially off-putting, but the more we spend time with them, the more attractive and relatable they become. There is still an occasional disconnect between the voices and the characters (the voice doesn’t seem to be coming from the inside), but there are no more of the ‘Dead-eyes’ that plagued Zemeckis’ films. Not exactly one for subtlety, Cameron pushes this and stacks the deck in their favor- whenever we cut to the human base, it’s all in ugly, drab, gray images, and very little interest. The actors are fine, but their dialogue is so forced and corny and banal that unless they are beautifully animated, there’s nothing to see. Though Stephen Lang as the villainous Quaritch makes the most of his bad dialogue, chewing the hell out of the scenery (he’s had a very good year, between this and his fantastic role in ‘Public Enemies’).
It’s a shame that Cameron didn’t leave well enough alone, the animated images are convincing enough without the counterpoint of the dull humans’ lives. He is so anxious to get to the animated Eden that he inexplicably loses the impact of a basic premise of the plot. The crippled Jake, by entering the body of his avatar, is granted the ability to walk. There is one brief moment of exhilaration, but a few more intimate moments could have been used to flesh out this massive emotional moment. The popular ‘Matrix’-like concept of mentally entering and controlling a different body is barely dealt with (in the end, the concept is used for the ultimate bit of racial guilt). Also, the technology is not perfect. Often, instead of feeling the true 3D effect, the shots look like a series of 2 dimensional figures layered on top of each other. The image has depth, but nothing in it does- it looks like a series of cut-out-figures stuck on top of an animated plate at various distances. Like a cartoon, just with real people. Also, the forced focus of the foreground elements makes it harder to explore the shots, as the background is fuzzier by contrast.
These flaws and others (like a film that preaches pacifism but supports righteous war) are not just nitpicks, but they do seem to be kind of insignificant compared to the effect of the amazing experience one gets while watching the film. I could on about the film’s condescending racial attitude, its lack of humor, its over-length- but as much as it is a cerebral mess, it is a visceral masterpiece. It is about amazing images and it tells a great visual tale. It returns awe to cinema. A primal, perhaps even childish awe. The kind of awe that perhaps a more serious content-oriented filmmaker could not approach. Cameron seems to have realized that if he could not get to the top of the lofty mountain of cinematic masters the usual way, then he’ll just have to build his own mountain. Modest he ain’t, but at least he is not a hypocrite- he is a shameless entertainer and very proud of that fact. So what if this environmentalist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist story is presented in the most expensive American film ever made, one that will invade every screen in the world? That bothered me after I saw the film, but never once during the film. The form is the real story, and it is a spectacular artistic success. Awe is too rare a cinematic experience to dismiss.