Cameron pulls it off again—Avatar is exhilarating

Believe it or not, another massive gamble by the daredevil director pays off

I was fully expecting to dislike Avatar. Having donned the 3-D glasses on “Avatar Day” in August, and watched the 15-minute preview on an IMAX screen, I was left unimpressed. I thought it looked too juvenile, too “cartoony.” The Fern Gully comparison made in the YouTube Downfall satire seemed all too true. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve changed my tune. Sure, the dialogue is wooden and the story is generic and derivative, but in spite of that, Avatar doesn’t suck; it rocks. Despite the odd amusing catch phrase (often containing the word “bitch”), you don’t go to a James Cameron movie for the dialogue. It’s all about spectacle—the action and the art direction. And no matter what the Most Expensive Movie Ever Made eventually cost — estimates range from US$240-$300 million — you don’t come out of  it wondering where Cameron spent the money. It’s all up on the screen. With his first fictional feature since Titanic blew all box-office records out of the water 12 years ago, the Canadian director has made good on the promise to create a game-changing movie. It’s also a game-like movie, one that borrows its avatar concept from video gaming and turns it into big-screen flesh. And as a skeptic who had always thought that inbreeding between movies and video games is a despicable trend that’s going to kill cinema, I was shocked to find myself exhilarated by Avatar.

While Cameron has made his name as an action director, here he reveals himself as a consummate visual artist. In designing the flora, fauna and blue aboriginals of this moon called Pandora, he has created a whole world from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch—there are monsters that look like the demented offspring of a rhino and a hammerhead shark, and a lot of Pandora’s bio-luminescent jungle is clearly inspired from the director’s underwater explorations. Jellyfish are so cool.  But what’s astonishing about this world is its beauty. When you combine that with the environmental message of saving the (alien) planet from Earth’s strip-mining colonial marauders, hard-core action buffs might wonder if James Cameron has gone soft. Clearly, the guy still loves the high-tech military hardware; he just can’t help himself. But Avatar shows us a filmmaker merrily at war with himself—a testosterone-loaded, gun-loving tree-hugger.

How good is the 3-D? It’s good enough that after a while you don’t notice it too much, which is the way it should be. My problem with a lot of 3-D, especially in Robert Zemeckis’  motion-capture movies (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) is that eye-grabbing effects keep breaking the fourth wall, and throw you out of the movie. A technology that is supposed to make something more real actually makes it more fake. That’s not the case with Avatar. Instead of constantly prodding and poking you, Cameron lets you sink into his 3-D world and enjoy the scenery. It feels more concave than convex.  Also, he’s conquered the zombie-like glaze that plagues the motion-capture characters in the Zemeckis pictures. The blue-skinned Na’vi are akin to animated creatures, yet they do have the substance and soul of the human actors who are driving the computer-generated bodies. The eyes are alive. And here’s what’s so ingenious about this movie: not only are the characters driving avatars (Franken-aboriginals made with human and alien DNA), the actors themselves are driving digital avatars through the motion-capture technique. This gives the movie a trippy, dimensional quality that goes beyond the strictly visual depth of the 3-D imagery.

I haven’t even begun to discuss the story, which is perhaps the least original aspect of the movie—a Dances With Aliens scenario of a colonial guy going native in a foreign jungle that’s as old as Conrad, Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story takes place on Pandora, a distant moon that is rich in a valuable mineral called “unobtainium.” The Earthling colonists, whose own planet has been ravaged beyond recognition, are desperate to mine the mineral, which happens to sit right underneath the sacred tree of life in the alien’s rain forest. The colonists are divided into hawks and doves, between the hard-ass military invaders who want to nuke the aboriginals and the devoted scientists who want to understand them. The military is commanded by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a rugged  brute; the scientists are led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a chain-smoking cynic who does research among the natives in her own avatar guise.

Australia’s Sam Worthington stars as Jake, a paraplegic Marine vet who accepts a dangerous mission in order to earn himself the medical treatment that will allow him to walk again. An alien avatar has been created for his twin brother, who was killed in action. Jake agrees to take his brother’s place—to latch his brain to an avatar body, infiltrate the alien world and make friends with Pandora’s native people. This involves climbing into a coffin-like mechanism which links his consciousness to the synthetic, remote-controlled, blue 10-foot body. In the jungle, Jake gets into some serious trouble, and is saved by a ferocious Na’vi maiden called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the chief’s daughter. Predictably, Jake goes native and falls in love as he learns how to rope and ride the pterodactyl-like birds that prey above the jungle canopy. (He even learns their language, a whole Klingon-like tongue that was created for the film.) And when all hell breaks loose, we know he’s going to side with the blue folk.

For all the clichés, there are some novel ideas in the film, and I’m not just talking about the technology that brings it to life. There’s a nifty equation drawn between the branching neural structure of the brain and the root structure of Pandora’s bio-luminescent jungle, which embodies a kind of mega-consciousness that the aboriginals revere as an environmental godhead.

In the end, Avatar becomes a sci-fi cowboys and Indians action movie, with earthlings and aliens filling the old roles. And it’s great fun. Let it be said, no one directs action like James Cameron. And although the world he creates is indeed cartoon-like, it does have a tangible substance that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen on screen. Anyone who cares about movies is going to want to see this. The magic in Avatar comes and goes, but there are moments when the whole 3-D experience pops into extraordinary focus, and you feel you are inside the movie. What’s interesting is that this dimensional ‘now’ flourishes in scenes of serene stillness. The 3-D medium is most effective when it turns the screen into a kind of aquarium, a world you descend into, rather than a barrage of effects that jump out at you. And that’s the best news yet—that the future of 3-D may favour meditation over mayhem.

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