Still the Same Old Story
Inflation ignored (otherwise, multi-Oscar Gone with the Wind is winner and still champion), multi-Oscar Avatar is the highest grosser in history, surpassing same writer-director James Cameron’s prior record with multi-Oscar Titanic. All three are landmark triumphs of money, spectacle and publicity over nuance. With the calm of two years’ wait, the title holder can be more objectively assessed, in the See It Big! series at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “our fabulous theater.”
In Cameron Terminator tradition, ambition, special effects and bravura lead the way in the 2009 actioner cannibalism of movies from war to sci-fi and fantasy, Westerns with a Native American viewpoint to Busby Berkeley, Tarzan to Emerald Forest ecology vs. technological greed to disparate love matches. Whether the Zeitgeist or the auteur’s canniness, it works even with some confusion in story and in science and is one of those recent 3-D rarities that takes advantage of that process. Concerns for Nature and noble natural man are here, along with tolerance and anti-militarism, but this is more escapist cinema of entertainment than of Idea or of Art.
Setting is emphasized, not merely as background to love and war, for planet Pandora’s plant and animal life is front and equally foremost, done, however calculated or not, with a wonder that has been often absent from fiction screens.
Without preliminary credits (and, for a work of this complexity, with comparatively few at the end), the film plunges into Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) voiced musings on mortality, spurred by the botched-robbery death of scientist brother Tommy and his own never-explained lower-body paralysis. A Marine corporal, more brawn and heart than brain, he is selected to save time and expense in replacing the sibling whose genome was similar to his. He is downloaded into an “avatar” other body so as to roam among the Na’vi, learn their mindset and convince them to move or else gather information for their forcible removal-extinction.
Competing bands uneasily share the Earthmen/Sky People base on the distant world. On the one hand are selfish cold Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), a capitalist anxious to obtain “unobtanium” from the “savages’” land, and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a muscular musclehead impatient for diplomacy to fail so that his men and machines can proceed to Nam-massacre.
In the good-guy camp are mild Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) and scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who is no-nonsense as shown by her smoking and cursing, the latter as trite as the colonel’s racist gung-ho lingo. (Jake’s wise-aleck remarks are thankfully few.) Later enlistees in this Justice League of America include fellow avatar Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and chopper pilot Trudy Chacón (Michelle Rodríguez).
Overjoyed in his Altered States body with long legs, Jake gets into hot water but is rescued by Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), who rebukes his stupidity while leading him to her tribe. Tall, blue and painted, sexy and slim with nary a belly among them, they have different reactions to the newcomer, allowed to stay and learn until a judgment is made, in opposition to the jealous hostility of renowned warrior Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso).
Their Home Tree is presumably one of several among Omaticaya groups, all offshoots of a Tree of Soul with direct link to Ewya, a Mother-Earth/-Pandora/-Nature Great Spirit. Recalled to his crippled human form or blogging back to base, Jake reveals disenchantment with the mission and admiration for the “inferior” society he is assigned to infiltrate and doom. That culture and its natural milieu are grandly imagined and imaged, from luminescent flora to flying pterosaur steeds and Lost World predators to floating mountains and cliffs, with which the indigenes are attuned, sometimes plugging their tentacled braids into other living creatures, including one another.
Avatar Jake and Neytiri are made for each other, as he comes to appreciate the life he is commissioned to destroy. While this is no surprise or departure from other, earlier movies, visuals and score are so splendid that the audience, too, takes sides.
The two ways of existence are polarized and the Armageddon worse than hell promised by the colonel is almost, but not quite, the ending of this spectacular showing and telling of a fairy tale that reverses the aftermath of 1492.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)