In many ways, my anticipation for James Cameron’s “Avatar” started in 1977, when I emerged from the darkness after my first viewing of the original “Star Wars.”
I was seven years old, and my brain had just been rewired by what I saw on that screen. I didn’t know how George Lucas discovered those alien planets and managed to get movie cameras to visit them, but I knew for a fact that I had left Earth and visited new places, met real aliens, and had a fantastic adventure. And the experience transformed me immediately into a cinema junkie in general, but specifically, it awakened a deeply-seeded love in me for the idea of world-building on film.
In the 32 years since then, I’ve read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy, both high-minded and pulp, and I’ve seen pretty much everything in those genres on film. I’ve watched the gradual refinement and evolution of special effects on film, and I’ve watched many filmmakers, including George Lucas, try to nail the same sort of giddy feeling of travel to a new world, and I’ve seen most of them fall short.
Yesterday morning, I got a hit of the real stuff for the first time in a long time.
I haven’t seen as persuasive and passionate a trip into a fantasy world since Peter Jackson’s triumphant “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, with the most significant difference being that James Cameron is offering us a personal vision of a brand-new place, and in doing so, he’s absolutely given birth to a brand new world, one in which he is the undisputed king.
It’s sort of amazing to me to realize that for many of the kids who are going to be as chemically altered by what they see onscreen as I was at the age of seven, James Cameron is a brand new filmmaker. After all, his last narrative feature was “Titanic,” and that was 12 years ago. For many members of the audience, “Avatar” will be the first of his films that they see in a theater. I think you’re going to see a huge fallout effect as a result of this film, too, as kids realize that anything you can dream, you can portray onscreen now. When Cameron pulled the plug on “Avatar” during the original development of it, claiming the technology didn’t exist to fully bring his vision for the film to life, he was right. But effects have caught up now, and as a result, this trip to Pandora isn’t cobbled together from real-world locations and set dressing. Instead, Pandora is its own place, as real as any imagined land could possibly be, rich in detail and gorgeously imagined.
The big question, of course, has to be whether there’s anything more to the film than dazzling production design, and the answer is an emphatic yes. This is spectacle with soul, a film as unafraid to reference My Lei or the Trail of Tears as it is Edgar Rice Burroughs or Hayao Miyazaki. And trust me… when Miyazaki sees the flying sequences in this film, you’re going to hear him bellow “OMFG” all the way from Japan. The comparisons that have been made between this film and earlier movies like “The New World”, “Pocahontas,” “Dances With Wolves,” and “A Man Called Horse” are all apt, and they’re definitely bouncing around in the movie’s DNA. I’ve also seen the comparison to “Dune” made several times as well, and I can see why. If I were Andrew Stanton preparing to make “John Carter Of Mars” I’d be alternately exhilarated by the potential onscreen and annoyed by how much Cameron was dipping his toe in my water. Honestly, though, “John Carter” is much closer to “Dances With Wolves,” since I’m not sure I remember Kevin Costner ever possessing the body of an Indian in his film. If all you do as you watch “Avatar” is play “spot the precursor,” you’re missing the subtext that makes this one of the most of-the-moment films of the year.
Cameron could just as easily have named this film “Pandora” and told the story of a human being interacting with the Na’vi directly, and the narrative could have largely played out in the same way, but he didn’t. Instead, he’s created a story that comments on the very nature of entertainment and escapism and the way the evolution of technology is changing the way we relate to it.
When I first moved to California back in 1990, I made a special detour on my cross-country drive just so I could meet Jeron Lanier, one of the fathers of virtual reality. What was cutting-edge then has become routine today, and the concept of a digital avatar that we control exploring entire worlds that do not exist is now commonplace, especially to the generation that has grown up as gamers. This year alone, I’ve probably spent 80 hours or more lost in the alternative realities of “Fallout 3,” “Assassin’s Creed II,” “Uncharted 2,” and “InFamous,” just to name a few, and when I think back on those hours, they are memories as tangible as any real-world ones. That ability to step outside my own body, slip into another skin, and do things I will never do as myself is the exact reason I invest time and mental real estate to gaming in the first place. It’s a powerful experience, and only getting more powerful with each passing year.
To be fair, though, cinema’s been doing it a lot longer, and one of the reasons I’ve always been such a crackhead for international cinema is because I want to know what it’s like to be a poor child growing up in 1950’s India or a Japanese businessman facing his own mortality or an Argentine woman demanding answers about the Disappeared. Those experiences, conveyed through cinema, enrich us and expand us, and so year after year, movie after movie, I sign up and take the ride, and my understanding of myself and other people grows as a result. These other people are my onscreen avatars, and when a film is particularly great, I feel like I’ve shared something real with them.
In the onscreen world of “Avatar,” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington in the role that finally pays off his potential) is not the only person to use an Avatar. There are, of course, the literal Avatars, combinations of human and Na’vi DNA that can be run by remote mental uplink, and in addition to Jake, we also meet Grace (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the program, as well as Norm (Joel David Moore), another new recruit, both in human and Avatar form. Beyond that, though, one of the main pieces of tech gear in the movie is the EVA suit, which serve as a physical extension of the Marines who wear them, and you could argue that the EVA suits are just different forms of avatars. Jake is, of course, the audience’s avatar in the movie, and when you watch the film in the jaw-dropping 3D that Cameron helped perfect, it is completely immersive, to the point where I stopped thinking about it at all. This is the first time that’s ever happened with a 3D film for me. It stopped being a gimmick or even a device and just became part of the fabric of the picture. I can’t tell you anything about individual 3D moments because the entire experience just felt like I was looking through a window into this new world. Cameron uses 3D to make each of us into Jake Sully, and when he boots up and finds himself in this amazing dreamscape, we are right there with him.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Cameron’s work to hear that the action set pieces are huge, visceral, and exquisitely staged. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work to hear that some of his dialogue lands with a thud. I think that’s true of each of his movies in a few places, and “Avatar” has its tin-eared moments. The thing is, the film works like a steamroller, constantly pushing forward, and if something trips you up momentarily, there are sights and sounds coming immediately after that dazzle anew. Running over two and a half hours, the film throws one remarkable sequence after another at you, and what ultimately won me all the way over is the persuasive, overwhelming creation of Pandora, its ecosystem, and the creatures who inhabit it. Cameron has gotten career best work out of production designer Rick Carter here, and the density of the creation left me feeling a little drunk when I walked out of the screening. Because the film deals with a world where everything exists in harmony, interconnected in a planetary neural network, the design is not just gravy on top of the story, but is actually the substance of the film. You have to believe that this is a place that all makes sense, and the way Cameron has drawn inspiration from pulp iconography, underwater iconography, and films as diverse as “Baraka” and his own earlier work is surprisingly effective. It never feels cobbled together. Instead, it is easy to believe that James Cameron believes in Pandora completely, and that to him, it is as real a place as his Malibu estate.
Special credit has to be given to Zoe Saldana, fresh off her work in “Star Trek,” for giving the best performance capture performance since Andy Serkis played Gollum and King Kong. While I think all actors would potentially enjoy the experience of working in this new way, I don’t think all actors automatically understand the different skill set that they need to utilize to fully bring one of these characters to life. Saldana imbues Neytiri, the female warrior who brings Jake Sully into the Na’vi tribe, with dignity and strength and humor and heart. Everything she feels plays out in her body language, the small non-verbal details, and when the film does finally break your heart, it’s due in no small part to her spectacular work. Worthington demonstrates a real evolution over the course of the film, gradually turning from a coarse, thick-headed Marine into a man with a real moral center, dictated by himself and not by the orders he’s given. Weaver, who was Oscar-nominated for her work in Cameron’s “Aliens,” is almost at home in her Avatar skin as Saldana is, and she’s pretty great in live-action, too.
On the human side, Giovanni Ribisi feels like the character who probably ended up on the editing room floor the most, thinly defined at best, while Stephen Lang is unleashed to play the genuinely despicable face of voracious consumption, human progress at the cost of the greater good, and he seems to relish every single moment of screentime. Quaritch is a memorable bad guy, cut from the Cameron mold just as well as Saldan’s Neytiri fits the heroic woman archetype that Cameron helped create. Michelle Rodriguez is basically just playing a variation on herself, but she registers strongly in the film’s third act, and ends up being very sympathetic.
The last 40 minutes or so of this movie contains some of the saddest imagery of the year as well as some of the most exciting. It’s that mix of emotion and excitement that is one of Cameron’s trademarks, and there is no doubt who the architect of the movie truly is. Honestly… that’s what makes me happiest about this film. In an age where so many of our aging lions falter and fail when they try to return to their earlier glories, James Cameron has actually aimed higher than ever before and accomplished most of what he set out to do. He would have done better to find a fresh collaborator for his score, since James Horner continues to cannibalize his own earlier work, including both “Aliens” and “Titanic,” but in almost every other way, Cameron has inspired the people around him to do work that impresses on every level. WETA Digital may not be the only house who worked on the movie, but they did the lion’s share of the work, and if you’re impressed by what you see, there’s no doubt it’s because of their efforts.
I plan to see this film at least two more times before it opens, and I have no doubt we’ll be discussing it more here on the blog in the weeks and months ahead. For now, just believe that one of our most gifted action filmmakers has once again crafted a singular experience, one that MUST be experienced on the best possible screen. “Avatar” is not a case of empty hype with no payoff. If anything, the hype has failed because it never once suggested the emotional richness of what Cameron was creating, and it’s that component which makes all of the action stick. I cared deeply about these remarkable creatures and their remarkable planet, and by the end of the film, the real-world metaphors were forgotten because I was caught up in the immediacy of what I was watching. Yes, there is obviously something Cameron wants to say about our world, but what I’ll take away from “Avatar” are all the things I want to say about his world.
“Avatar” opens on December 18th everywhere. Do not miss it.
[Editor’s note: For a preview of James Cameron’s “Avatar” check out these six new clips here.]
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