Same Shit, Different Planet
Saddle up, space cowboys, for a whole new world
by Molly Templeton
AVATAR: Written and directed by James Cameron. Cinematography, Mauro Fiore. Editing, James Cameron, Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua. Music, James Horner. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Laz Alonso, Wes Studi and CCH Pounder. 20th Century Fox, 2009. PG-13. 162 minutes.
James Cameron makes shit look cool. The writer-director is constantly one-
upping himself, moving from the watery faces of The Abyss to the silvery threat of Terminator 2 to that giant sinking ship.
Avatar is on an entirely different level. The previews, seen in little boxes on MacBooks, did the film no justice; it looked like cut-scenes from a nifty video game. And were those giant blue cats?
On the big screen, Avatar looks incredible. The upgraded, Cameron-ized 3D and performance-capture technology are miles ahead of Robert Zemeckis’ creepy animated dolls. The showmanship is in the details. You can see the actor under the animation — Sigourney Weaver is there in her smile, Zoe Saldana in her posture, Sam Worthington in his knit brows. The 3D isn’t used to throw phallic spears in your face, but to let ash fall like snow on the shoulders of the row in front of you. The technological wonders are often best displayed in moments that pass briefly, as when a scientist slides an image off a monitor and onto a portable screen barely thicker than paper. He takes it for granted, and so do we.
Avatar is the story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who joins the Avatar Program for a variety of reasons, not least because he shares the necessary biology with his deceased twin brother, who was part of it. The program is the scientific arm of a human base on Pandora, a lush planet on which a corporation is working to extract priceless unobtainium (a long-running science fiction joke that falls flat here). Inconveniently and unsurprisingly, the motherlode of unobtainium is under the Home Tree, the giant, growing home of the native population, the Na’vi, a humanoid species with long, thin waists, expressive ears, curling tails and braids that end in a cluster of nerves that can be connected with other Pandoran life. (They also have breasts, despite not being mammals. Science, she is a malleable thing.)
As an avatar “driver,” Jake’s con-sciousness is projected into a Na’vi body that’s sent into the jungle to negotiate with and learn from the natives. Jake, bitter and depressed, finds instant joy in the tall, strong body. He get cocky and gets lost. After being nearly eaten by Pandoran fauna, which tends to have excess teeth and eyes and sometimes legs, he’s rescued by Neytiri (Saldana), a fierce and fearless Na’vi who doesn’t kill him because of a sign from Eywa, the Na’vi deity.
The sequences of Jake experiencing the Na’vi culture are among the film’s most engrossing, convincing and magical. The entire planet is alive and connected; the flora is surreal, prone to drifting, spinning or glowing underfoot; there are giant half-pterodactyl, half-dragonfly creatures to tame and ride and floating rocks to dart around.
So yes. It looks beautiful. But all this beauty is in service to a tired story — one oft compared to Dances With Wolves — about a white guy “going native,” learning the error of his people’s ways and turning against them. Cameron has some earth-loving, anti-imperialist ideas tucked into his narrative, but his philosophies are vague and not helped by the stock story and stiff dialogue. Characters on both sides are written in outline only: a scenery-chewing, Bushism-spewing military caricature; a spineless bureaucrat who cares only for the bottom line. The Na’vi don’t fare much better; Cameron writes them, too, in cliché and stereotype, borrowing liberally from Earth’s indigenous populations and romanticizing “simple” living.
Cameron is master of nothing if not scope and scale, worldbuilding on an incredible level, and though it no longer looks like a PS3 game, his world is one that begs to be played in — and one that begs for a better story. Avatar is good-guy wish fulfillment writ large and blue. Jake is the audience’s dreamwalker, the character we ride into the jungle, but he’s also the character the rest of the movie is made to serve. Only Jake Sully grows, learns, comes to understand things and to use his human knowlege for good. He’s there to help defend the Na’vi, but they’re there to help him have an epiphany. Cameron’s old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians tale turns the tables to some degree, sure. But his hero is still a cowboy.