Like many Hollywood bigwigs, James Cameron combines an Ayn Randian regard for himself as a supreme individualist bound by no one else’s rules (“I’m the king of the world!” — and the budget!) with paranoid leftist visions of profit-mad corporations wiping out humankind (or the noblest portions thereof). Heroes’ messianic self-sacrifices bridge the ideological gap, save the planet (or Kate Winslet), and put lumps in all our throats. This formula works like gangbusters for Cameron — professionally if not, I gather, interpersonally — because he (like Rand’s protagonists) understands the value of GIGANTISM and AWESOMENESS. Doubters who doubted his redoubtable blend of grandiosity and cornball populism will have pterodactyl egg on their faces, because Avatar turns out to be a mighty achievement.
Yes, on one level it’s a crock: predictable, sentimental, and tin-eared. It’s an attempt to rewrite (and reanimate) American history in the form of a barely disguised parable of Native Americans triumphing against white imperialists who would drive them from their ancestral lands — aided by a white imperialist (a Marine) who has Gone Native. Set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a moon of the vast gas planet Polyphemus in Alpha Centauri, it’s Dances With Thanators (and Banshees and Direhorses and Hexapedes and Hammerhead Titanotheres and Leonopteryxs). The narrative would be ho-hum without the spectacle. But what spectacle! Avatar is dizzying, enveloping, vertiginous I ran out of adjectives an hour into its 161 minutes.
The problem until now with Computer Generated Imagery is that it hasn’t made the final perceptual leap: It’s impressive rather than immersive. Under the guidance of George Lucas, the busiest frames that money could buy were dead on the screen. The vaunted “bully brawl” sequence of The Matrix Reloaded featured a little video Keanu Reeves flinging multiple little video Hugo Weavings skyward with all the verisimilitude of Popeye K.O.’ing Bluto.
In one giant leap, the obsessive Cameron has changed all that. He has advanced the technology. (My press kit mentions, among other inventions, a new kind of “image-based facial performance capture,” more intricate “head-rig” systems, a “virtual camera,” a “Fusion Camera System,” a “Simul-Cam,” and an “AMP — Amplified Mobility Platform — Suit”). He has also — partly with 3-D in mind — made shrewd use of foreground and depth of field. He puts GI-FREAKING-NORMOUS stuff in front and adds layers and layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame and down to the teeniest pixel. He has created a living ecosystem — and You (and Your 3-D Glasses) Are There.
Cameron’s mise-en-scène has the added advantage of making thematic sense. With its “bioluminescent” ground and foliage, Pandora is said by the Na’vi to be alive, infused with sacred energy, spiritually connected at the roots, bound together by a kind of Oversoul. And damned if that’s not what this technology — and its true Deity, whose initials are, coincidentally, J.C. — evokes. Pantheism, Cameronism: In Avatar, what’s the difference?
It takes a while for the hero, Jake Sully (the personable Sam Worthington), to get the drift. Crippled by a spinal-cord injury, the jarhead joins an organization of independent military contractors (“Secops”) on Pandora to help the Resources Development Administration mine a precious mineral called (cheekily) Unobtainium, much of which happens to be under the Na’vi’s holy land. For complicated reasons (a dead twin brother with the same neurophysiology), Jake is drafted to be an avatar — to have his nervous system projected into a remotely controlled Na’vi body so he can go forth into the dangerous environment and engage the natives.
Prickly scientist-ethnographist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, holding her own against the FX) wants him to study their rituals. Douchebag selfish capitalist Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants him to negotiate for the Unobtainium (“Find out what the blue monkeys want I mean, look at all that Cheddar Exterminating the indigenous looks bad on the quarterly statement ”) Gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Steven Lang) wants him to spy and learn the Na’vi’s tactical weaknesses. Scientists clash with warriors and businessmen. Money threatens to trump morality. (Jake is promised an expensive operation to repair his spinal cord.) But then, out in the field, Jake meets the fluid, fiery female warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana under all the CGI) and starts to get turned on by jumping off HUGE trees and HUGE waterfalls and onto HUGE flying banshees and becoming one with the HUGENESS of Pandora — not to mention with Neytiri.
The Na’vi are blue and ten feet tall and have long waists, reptilian tails, wide golden eyes, and wider noses. At first I found them an eyesore but then about halfway through, the humans’ features began to seem puny and pallid, and by the end I was thinking Neytiri was kind of a dish if you’re into Amazonians. Jake feels the same way. A decade ago, The Matrix boasted a hero who learned his world and body were a simulacrum, an illusion, and who struggled to return to the real world. But for Jake and Avatar, it’s the opposite. “Out there is the true world,” he says. “In here” — his ship, his human body — “is the dream. Everything is backwards now I don’t know who I am.”
Who he is, of course, is a born-again Injun in the mode of the Man Called Horse and Kevin Costner. And so he fights for the true, the pure, the primitive, against the poisonous forces of technology — with the help, of course, of state-of-the-art cinematic technology. Clods of dirt fly into our faces. Explosions trigger our fight-or-flight instincts. Colors are more colorful, big beasts bigger and more bestial, warplanes as they swoop down on the Na’vi more terrifyingly warlike. Cameron might be a megalomaniac, but I bow to his titanic will. In Avatar, he’s king of a world he made from scratch.
Related: Avatar’s Pandora and the Ten Movie Planets We’re Glad We Don’t Live On [Vulture]