Reportedly approaching costs of $300 million and shelved for ten years while director James Cameron waited for computer graphics technology to satisfy his imagination and his budget, his long-awaited epic, Avatar, has finally come. Does the film live up to the tremendous expectations it set? No and yes.
A team of scientists is sent to the moon Pandora in the year 2154—Earth calendar—by the Resources Development Administration. Accompanying the scientists trying to locate key deposits of—don’t laugh—Unobtainium is a private security force, Blackwater to RDA’s Halliburton, led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a typically-goony jarhead caricature spouting epithets and jingoisms. Does this story sound familiar? I’ll come back to that.
One of the marines, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a paraplegic who lost the use of his legs in combat. His brother died while serving as a “driver” in the Avatar Program. In an effort to learn about the moon’s indigenous inhabitants, the Na’vi (“native” transposed and abbreviated?), the drivers are neurologically linked to hybrid organisms grown from combining their DNA with the Na’vi genome. Since Jake is closest genetically to his brother, his chances of a successful link with his avatar are greatest.
There are too many parallels to other stories to count. On the internet, the film has quickly earned the nickname “Dances With Smurfs,” referring to Kevin Costner’s 1990 exploitation of white guilt as well as the iridescent blue skin of the Na’vi. In Mr. Cameron’s 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, Marines were sent to investigate the destroyed colony at LV-426, with the hopes of harvesting the acid-blooded aliens for military research and development as a potential weapon. The very second you connect these dots, Ripley herself (Sigourney Weaver) enters as the humans’ chief scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine. And then the punchline: Among the mercenaries a token Hispanic female, pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), photocopied straight from Private Vasquez in Aliens.
Jake’s mission is to infiltrate the Na’vi, gain their trust and persuade them to relocate so that RDA can access the largest quarry of unobtainium on Pandora, which (surprise) happens to be buried underneath the Na’vi village. The problem, as always happens when you find yourself in the Military Guy Sent To Destroy A People’s Way Of Life role, is that Jake falls in love with a young Na’vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). It’s always the chief’s daughter, isn’t it?
Some of the shallower parallels to be drawn with Jake Sully might originate from Biblical mythology and the savior archetype. Jesus Christ, John Connor, James Cameron… One wonders if Jake Sully’s last name originally started with a “C,” but perhaps, thought Mr. Cameron, that would be too obvious the second time around. However, the narrative follows our Jesus/Buddha/Gandhi through his disenchantment, as he becomes one of “the people” (“Na’vi” translated). It’s useful to note that the word “avatar” comes from Sanskrit, meaning one who is descended from heaven to earth—i.e. an incarnation of god.
The Na’vi and their language, developed for the film by USC professor Paul Frommer, are a conglomeration of African and Native American tribal cultures. At the center of their pantheist religion is the deity/lifeforce Eywa—pronounced like “Yahweh” transposed, not coincidentally I suspect. They believe that Eywa interconnects all beings on Pandora. They have bonding rituals with animals they use to traverse the ground and sail the skies. However, there is a science to this mythology. Through the physiology of Eywa their memories, their cultural knowledge, may be stored and retrieved in a biological (electrochemical, perhaps) information network shared by bioluminescent plant-like life spanning the moon’s surface.
With so many elements borrowed from cinema, cultural anthropology, mythology, and the like, is there an original element to be found in Avatar? Yes. Sixty percent of the film, according to the Internet Movie Database, is comprised of computer graphics animation by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital. It is the most stunning, meticulously detailed use of visual effects I have seen since Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993. At that time, George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic set the bar impossibly high with photorealistic effects that I feel have never been matched until now. It could be that the glut of animation that followed was done under intense deadlines, with ever-shrinking budgets as more outfits entered the market. The culmination of this has been mass-production effects houses in Asia churning out large battle sequences—throngs of artificial people like balls of lint floating about the screen. Pandora, by contrast, is teeming with life: Water flows, sprays and glistens. Fire flickers. Na’vi steeds, a cross between horses and anteaters, have nostrils that flare and flutter, and the Na’vi skin looks porous and slightly translucent.
The screening I saw was presented in RealD Cinema, a 3D process that Mr. Cameron apparently knew not to overuse. Some principal characters, panoramic computer viewscreens, and other props stand out, but briefly. Even in recent years, 3D projections typically possessed drab, washed out palettes, but Mr. Cameron seems to have identified where to compensate to retain proper color, contrast and brightness. With the exception of an arrow here and a droplet there popping out for show, the effect is used to enhance the depth of panoramic action sequences, which the film does descend into in the last forty-five minutes or so. Mr. Cameron stretches the three acts—the human story, the Na’vi story, their climactic clash—to endlessly wow us with effects, explosions, and bombastic music by James Horner yet again cribbing Prokofiev and other composers. But, oddly, the film never feels sluggish. For all its flaws as art, Mr. Cameron has served up functional entertainment with a gigantic price tag. It’s a popcorn film. Buy three or four bags. At today’s prices that might cover the theater’s reel rental costs and boost our economy out of a recession.
Footnote: Do you suppose the name Pandora came from the idea that interference with an indigenous people is opening a…
Avatar • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 162 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. • Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation