No less an eminence than Roger Ebert has identified the special status of Avatar, the most ambitious film by the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker in history, James Cameron. “It is an Event,” Ebert wrote, “one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”
No one will deny that it’s currently the subject of several million conversations, but the meaning of the Event deserves scrutiny. Is Avatar, as Cameron’s publicity implies, a gateway to the movies of the future and an affirmation of elevated spiritual values in a coarse, commercial world? Or is it the sign of an art form in grave danger of losing its heart to technique, proof of a public addiction to worn-out storytelling—and fresh evidence that North America is the first society in history that willingly pays good money to see itself depicted as essentially evil?
When a work of science fiction runs dry it becomes a minor footnote to contemporary fashions in opinion. Avatar, more than most films, drives itself into this narrative dead end. It comes across as a commercial for the Green party, a New Age hymn to pure nature, and a florid work of anti-war propaganda, a simple-minded story of an army dedicated to evil purposes fighting a nation of innocent victims.
Avatar’s future is 2154, a date presumably chosen (just a guess) as the year when the world will celebrate the 200th anniversary of James Cameron’s birth. But Americans in this world-to-come are obsessed with the subjects that fill the TV news of today. It’s remarkable that a future-minded fellow like Cameron assumes that nothing much in human consciousness will change during the next 144 years. It’s like a story invented at the time of Confederation that imagines everyone in 2010 will be worrying about the future of European royalty.
Avatar is also the perfect cinematic embodiment of anti-Americanism. It appeals to the teeming masses who may well know that corporations have made them affluent but don’t like to dwell on such an uncomfortable truth. Still, among moviemakers, a dislike of corporate power goes only so far. Apparently no one is planning to regret publicly that the huge profits from Avatar have notably buttressed the stock of its backer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
In Cameron’s script, an army of mercenaries, former U.S. Marines, have established a mission on Pandora, the lushly forested moon of a distant planet. Pandora is rich in a precious ore, “unobtanium” (and that word is as close as the movie gets to a good joke), which means to the 22nd century what oil means to the 21st. Earth lusts after it, apparently because it will solve the energy crisis.
But the most ore-rich mountain happens to be home to the peaceful, pious and ecologically intelligent Na’vi. Sigourney Weaver, the chief scientist on the U.S. mission, discovers that the mountain is also alive, just as our pagan ancestors imagined.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic war veteran with no space experience, gets chosen for the mission as a replacement for his dead twin brother. The identical DNA of a twin matters because the scientists are combining human DNA with native Pandora DNA.
This will transform Jake, temporarily, into an avatar resembling a Na’vi. When in this state he not only regains the use of his legs, he stands three metres tall and acquires almond eyes, speckled blue skin and a long ponytail. The ponytail ends in tendrils that connect him like wires to the nervous system of an animal, producing animal-Na’vi synergy. When Jake plugs his magic ponytail into the mane of one of the dragon-like flying horses that the Na’vi use for transport, Jake and animal become spiritually aligned and sail into the distance together. This is the Na’vi way: a kindly, thoughtful method of training, so much better than anything known by brutish earthlings—though before the training ends, Jake gets thrown off his steed, in a way that recalls every rodeo sequence ever shot.
Setting out on his career as a pretend Na’vi, Jake promises loyalty to his boss, the bellicose Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). While the colonel figures he’ll have to kill many natives and forcibly displace the rest, Jake favours diplomacy instead: in his Na’vi personality he’ll persuade the natives to move off the mountain in peace. But the Americans have nothing the Na’vi want, so the colonel fires up his helicopter gunships and declares war.
By then Jake has mentally transported himself to another movie—maybe Dances with Wolves (1990), with Kevin Costner adopting the ways of North American Indians under a good woman’s influence. Or perhaps he’s Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970), a white boy becoming a warrior under Chief Dan George. He could be in any of the movies that reflect the 18th-century idea of the “noble savage” associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jake goes native, as they used to say in Somerset Maugham stories about the South Pacific. Abandoning his vile fellow earthlings, he becomes a naturalized Na’vi.
To no one’s surprise he falls for the daughter of the tribal chief and she for him—another recurring classic theme, or perhaps a cliché that deserves retirement. In Cameron’s hands it feels more like a cliché.
The script defeats even Weaver, who on this occasion gives the worst performance of her career. One reason is that there’s precious little for an actor to do. Worthington, as the hero and the story’s conscience, trudges glumly through the action, emitting nothing that resembles emotion. Computerized motion-capture technique visually manipulates the images of the important actors, turning them into caricatures of themselves. That’s appropriate, since their roles are rarely more subtle than Mickey Mouse. Like purely animated drawings, Avatar characters fall from great heights or endure bone-grinding collisions, then recover in seconds.
The language of the script betrays a meagre verbal imagination. Close to the beginning the tone is set with the line, “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” as if that Wizard of Oz reference had not been worn out decades ago. The military people try to win the hearts and minds of the natives; someone speaks of applying “shock and awe” tactics and pre-emptive warfare. This jargon borrowed from the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush gives the script an air of snideness that soon grows numbing. Almost every articulated thought and phrase echoes well-worn stories from the past.
But of course Avatar speaks another language, the sophisticated idiom of special-effects cinema, the focus of Cameron’s career. This is where the budget of $250 million (give or take $50 million) was spent. It’s also the main reason a huge audience has shown up to learn what Cameron has to offer.
He uses his technological freedom to cover Pandora in his own version of Creation, but carefully avoids showing us anything too outlandish. His Cameronian world emerges as an adaptation of what earthlings know. The woolly mammoth hunted by our ancestors charges through Pandora, but it’s a woolly mammoth on steroids, bigger and fiercer. Cameron’s flying horses descend from dozens of legends. His birds are wildly exaggerated versions of ornithological specimens, his flowers grander adaptations of the specimens in a horticultural park. He borrows colours from the deep-sea flora and fauna revealed by underwater photography.
At the beginning, as Cameron takes us through a murky and mysterious rainforest, his most ingenious images are genuinely surprising. But the film runs 163 minutes, getting on for three hours, which means many special effects are repeated so often they cease to be special. There are moments when we look down a cliff into a valley that seems impossibly deep. It’s breathtaking the first time but routine the fourth.
The 3-D version has been so well promoted that we’re ready for a spectacular experience when we put on the special glasses. But 3-D proves, as it has often before, a disappointment. We seem to be looking at two different pictures, one in two dimensions, the other pasted on top. This technique has been elaborately refined over more than half a century but it remains limited in the same way that Bwana Devil (1952) was limited when a Kenyan tribesman threw a spear into the audience. The audience ducked but found the 3-D effects otherwise boring.
It’s clear that Cameron stoutly opposes war (nothing on earth or Pandora could be more obvious), but it’s hard to imagine how a film like this could possibly get along without it. A battle between the natives of Pandora and the American soldiers fills the last third of the film. It’s the hardest part to watch, an eye-straining, ear-abusing ordeal, complete with aerial dogfights that recall Top Gun and every other fighter-pilot movie. In this case, 3-D confuses more than it excites. Cameron’s inspiration fails him with his tanks and helicopters, awkward-looking contraptions. Perhaps Cameron wants to express the ugliness of American war-making, but these sequences feel more like a computer game.
Avatar has been cited as a possible winner of the Academy Award for best picture, but it’s not even the best of James Cameron’s films. On almost every level, Avatar is a sub-prime performance. His Terminator 2: Judgment Day looks like a masterpiece by comparison with Avatar. Titanic, a weepy puddle of bathos, at least offers some attractive and interesting actors, of whom Avatar has none. James Cameron exhibits remarkable talents in Avatar, but the greatest by far is his spectacular knack for generating publicity.