Despite James “King of the World” Cameron’s cocky claims to the contrary, with Avatar, a cinematic revolution doesn’t begin so much as proceed into its next phase, one in which the battle vigorously continues between technology and storytelling, novelty and cliché, maturity and juvenilia. Cameron’s exceedingly expensive 12-years-in-the-making fictional follow-up to Titanic supposedly represents the dawn of a new era for the art form, one that on the basis of the film at hand will involve ever-more expert CG animation, thrilling 3D effects, and little non-visual substance to prevent one from slowly nodding off amid sensory-overload avalanches of fantastic sights and raucous sounds. Long a director who not only created new filmmaking techniques for his sci-fi adventures, but crucially created tools that inherently meshed with his material, Cameron here seems to have put the WETA Digital workshop before the word processor, as his wannabe paradigm-shifter at once resets the boundaries of what’s possible to situate on screen while at the same time offering up a narrative skeleton for his wizardry that’s simplistic, hackneyed, and ultimately more than slightly inane. It’s motion-capture majesty in the service of lifeless romance and mushy-headed allegory.
But first, the aesthetic splendor. Cameron’s unflagging gift for action choreography has always been his ace in the hole, and in a filmic landscape dominated by the influence of Michael Bay’s scattershot imagistic disarray, the lucid and visceral beauty of Avatar‘s depiction of corporeal movement, whether in violent clashes and chases or euphoric airborne flights, is invigorating. Camerawork, editing, and 3D effects (which provide immersive depth to the bustling frame) are consistently at the behest of coherent, mounting momentum, the effect being that there’s rarely a disorienting shot or juxtaposition to be found throughout the 163-minute film’s myriad set pieces. The same holds true of slow motion, which Cameron employs not as a mere look-at-me flourish, but as a heightened, gorgeous means of affording split-second views on either physical or dramatic details. One can always clearly see, and though that may sound like faint praise, it’s nothing of the sort, as the director’s meticulous compositions have a vitality and richness that habitually draw one into the action even as the script works hard to call attention to its clunky self through trailer-ready one-liners and italicized loaded phrases.
If Avatar is structurally sound both cinematographically and editorially, its much-ballyhooed technological advancements prove a significant step, rather than a historic leap, forward. Photorealism has long been a term closely attached to Cameron’s pet project, and at least when it comes to the environments of Pandora, the alien planet setting for this intergalactic 2154 conflict between colonizing humans and the native Na’vi race, it’s a reasonable description to make, as the world’s lush, bountiful forests, retracting spiral plants, and floating mountain ranges marry thrilling tactility, expressionistic grandeur, and creative distinctiveness. Pandora may have been created whole-cloth on a PC, but it’s a world in which one can believe.
The same can’t always be said of its inhabitants, as the Na’vi, giant blue feline-like humanoids with lean frames and dreadlocked manes, vacillate between concrete tangibility (usually in close-ups) and semi-fuzziness (in occasional medium shots). Nonetheless, even if the effects work isn’t always up to the quality of its high-watermark moments, it still routinely exhibits a comic book-video-game-B-movie inventiveness, from the rhino-dinosaur creatures of a frantic early sequence, to the pterodactyl-ish winged monsters that feature prominently during a strikingly wrought rites-of-passage trial, to the deadly mesh suits utilized by the invading marines during the all-out finale.
Alas, even during an Apocalypse Now-reminiscent vista of environmental destruction, or an airborne attack in which figures leapfrog between the wings of attack helicopters, Avatar, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, too often feels like a more highly polished version of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, in that the synthetic nature of the imagery unmoors one from a sense of engaging reality. There may be no more wonderful sight throughout this cacophonous saga than that of Cameron’s first and greatest action-babe muse, Sigourney Weaver, flipping on the lights of a research base with a cigarette dangling from her lips, not simply because it conjures memories of Aliens, but because it’s a rare instance in which gee-whiz digi-fanfare seems less the be-all, end-all than a complementary device in harmony with Cameron’s human participants. Such examples are rare, however, and those actors who do most of their heavy lifting in their own skin (rather than as motion-captured alien-human hybrids) rarely make an appearance without some holographic screen or CG design gussying up the frame, their beside-the-point status furthered by the writer-director’s refusal to afford any character even the faintest shade of gray.
There’s a reason I’ve yet to mention many narrative particulars: best to recount the good news first. In terms of story, Avatar is a steroidal hodgepodge of been-there, done-that melodrama and paper-thin present-day allusions that hew tightly to the plot of this past April’s Battle for Terra. With that lame animated kid’s film it shares a focus on mankind’s efforts—in the wake of having ruined Earth due to excessive exploitation of natural resources—to plunder a remote planet for its valuable raw materials (in this case, “unobtanium”) without regard for the indigenous population. As in Battle for Terra, humanity is now little more than a ruthless military industrial complex (a typical Cameron bugaboo, here embodied by Giovanni Ribisi’s cutthroat corporate bigwig and Stephen Lang’s bloodthirsty colonel) and the extraterrestrials are peacenik tree people in touch with nature. And despite loads of determination and pride, these aliens are defenseless against their prospective annihilators without the derring-do of a noble human who invariably falls for an alien female and helps lead a rebellion against his own kind. The catch here is simply that said champion, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a paraplegic who, unable to afford spinal surgery (damn persistent health care woes!) and taking his dead brother’s place in a virtual reality-ish project run by tolerant Grace (Weaver), carries out this adventure via a Na’vi-human hybrid avatar.
For a time, this out-of-body conceit carries some weight, highlighted by the early sight of wheelchair-bound Jake relishing the feeling of running, of the wind in his hair and of soil between his toes, while controlling his avatar, as well as the initially intriguing suggestion—via Jake’s narration about the shifting boundaries between dreams and waking—that reality is ultimately an internal rather than external concept. Yet with the Na’vi unsubtly positioned as stand-ins for Native Americans (down to their animal-cloth garb and religious mysticism), Cameron’s tale quickly resorts to a conventional, staid John Smith-Pocahontas romantic dynamic for Jake’s relationship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the regional Na’vi clan’s chief. The template, though, isn’t The New World, but Disney’s Pocahontas, what with the raft of supernaturally powered spiritual trees, their holy dandelion-jellyfish seeds (which practically beg for “Colors of the Wind” musical accompaniment), and the Mother Pandora-enabled body-to-body soul transfers for select humans pure enough to become Na’vi. Compounding the dullness of this new-agey vision is Cameron’s embarrassing attempt to justify the Na’vi’s magical connection to their home world with scientific mumbo jumbo (Weaver: “There is really something interesting going on in there, biologically”), a decision that recalls Episode One‘s midi-chlorians and proves that for all his behind-the-camera dexterity, he’s not immune to Lucas-style storytelling shortcomings.
Standard-issue amour and hokey sci-fi fantasy might be more easily overlooked if the scale of Cameron’s jaw-dropping spectacle didn’t seek to elevate the entire endeavor to the realm of the epic, and additionally, if the underlying allegory at work weren’t so crude and dim. Despite all the Native American-English settlers implications, Avatar also wants to be about the here and now, Iraq and Afghanistan, a message delivered implicitly through its condemnation of aggressive American imperialists and lionization of the besieged “other,” as well as explicitly through the central unobtanium=oil metaphor and characters blurting out things like “We’ll fight terror with terror,” “preemptive attack,” and “shock and awe.” In this context, Cameron’s would-be blockbuster is a veritable Join the Jihad pamphlet actively engaged in glorifying those Americans who take up cause against their country, a stance that would be far more confrontational and distasteful were it worth actually taking seriously in the first place. Yet between the clunky black-and-white characterizations of its heroes and villains, and the fact that the representationally muddled Na’vi are the polar opposite of America’s current real-world enemies, all this tossed-off contemporizing comes off as just a dense stab at hot-button relevance. Cameron says he wants a revolution, but it’s only the pioneering techno-progressive one that Avatar sells convincingly.