Can James Cameron Fool Mother Nature?
Avatar, the most expensive -- and, arguably, most ballyhooed -- film ever made, lives up to the hype without signaling the dawn of a new age of cinema. Those eagerly awaiting James Cameron's latest will not be disappointed. They include, in no special order, exhibitors and studio heads focused on corporate bottom lines, so-called fanboys and action-fantasy aficionados, and filmmakers curious about the applications of Cameron's vaunted technological innovations.
Perhaps the best measure of Avatar's success would be for the average moviegoer to emerge not asking, "How did he do that?" but simply glad that he did -- pleased the movie was worth the time and money they spent to watch it. That will be the typical response to the visually arresting futuristic extravaganza, not least because of its recognizable narrative and thematic precursors. Passages call to mind a Vietnam War flick, a western -- pitting bellicose interlopers against natives in harmony with their natural environment -- and a Disney animated musical. The opus has just enough soul to escape being hoisted on its own digitally sharpened petard.
Set 145 years from today -- or 157 years after Cameron conquered the world astride Titanic -- it follows paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he travels to the planet Pandora where a public-private partnership is extracting a mineral crucial to sustaining life back on an environmentally decimated Earth. A team of scientists, alongside a massive security force, is charged with helping tame the jungle terrain and its hostile, semi-humanoid natives. Jake's recently deceased twin brother was one of the scientists and due to their DNA match and his military background, Jake is recruited to take his place. Together with botanist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), he endeavors to "win the hearts and minds" of the indigenous Pandorans, the Na'vi.
The Na'vi are ten-feet tall with blue skin and resemble a cross between giant humans and bipedal lemurs. They're feral and prone to hissing like cats, but also have a serene, deeply spiritual side. Using a cutting-edge technological process, Jake controls a genetically engineered Na'vi avatar with his own consciousness. This surrogate goes to the planet's surface and, under the tutelage of a princess named Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), joins a Na'vi clan dwelling above the richest mineral deposit. He learns they worship a goddess called Eywa, or All Mother, who has a material, biological foundation. Every living thing on Pandora is linked by a network of energy, and the Na'vi commune with their surroundings and other creatures via what looks like glowing angel hair pasta in their tails.
In addition to assimilating for peaceful, research purposes, Jake has agreed to spy on the Na'vi for the mining company's gung-ho head of security, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who promises to get Jake's legs repaired in exchange for military intel. Eventually, after falling in love with Neytiri and immersing himself in her culture, Jake is forced choose between the Na'vi and his own rapacious species. He laments, "I was a warrior who thought he could bring peace."
Cameron and his legion of computer technicians and craftspeople have designed a breathtaking world, replete with fluorescent fauna and fierce creatures resembling prehistoric rhinos, panthers, dogs, horses and raptors. Thrilling action sequences alternate with developments inside the laboratories from where Jake operates his avatar, culminating in a destructive battle between the Na'vi and heavily armed Earthlings. Most impressive, perhaps, is the fluid way in which Cameron switches back and forth between the parallel planes of Pandora, whose atmosphere is toxic to humans, and their sealed locations, never allowing tension to dissipate.
For all the expert technique evidenced on the visual side, the art of screenwriting is not exactly prominent. For example, you'd think Cameron could have come up with a better name than Unobtainium for the mineral humans covet. I suppose it's a tribute to his thoroughness that he hired a linguist to invent the Na'vi language, but there's an obvious imbalance between the dialogue and images. Still, he's a good storyteller and the lapses in the script are relatively minor and mainly involve attempts to be overly topical, as he takes shots at America’s post-9/11 foreign policy and military forays.
His overarching message concerns the way humankind is ruining the environment. (For the smitten Jake, blue becomes the new green.) It's easy to be reductive and dismiss the plot as a politically correct and brilliantly sheathed version of the line from the old Chiffon margarine commercials, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Yet if anyone can deceive Mother Nature, James Cameron can. Although Avatar amounts to old wine in new skins, the scale and quality of those skins are impressive and the wine, no matter what its color, is worth drinking.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)