Lowdown: A corporation fights with the natives over the riches of their world.
Although I’m sure he never heard of me, James Cameron and I go together a long way. Cameron has directed the films that have influenced me the most, and in return I have been the repeat owner of all of his major releases thus far: The Terminator (laserdisc followed by the special edition DVD), Terminator 2 (laserdisc followed by the extended edition laserdisc followed by the ultimate edition DVD), Aliens (special edition laserdisc), The Abyss (special edition laserdisc), True Lies (laserdisc) and Titanic (laserdisc). Throughout his career, Cameron has been famous for breaking new frontiers: underwater filming in The Abyss, first proper use of digital effects in T2, filming budget records and and special effects on Titanic, etc. The result is that when Cameron releases a film, I’m interested. When that new release is said to be another ground breaking film the way Avatar is said to be, I’m even more interested.
In fact, I was so interested that when we were suddenly presented with the opportunity to go out and spend the night on our own without the company of our two year old, we chose to spend our first night alone in two and a half years in the company of James Cameron’s Avatar. Sure, a lot of it is to do with cinemas’ accessibility and flexible timetable, but a lot of it is also to do with Cameron.
The trivial aspect of Avatar is to do with its rather corny plot that probably damages the just cause it stands for with its cliché heavy standing. The setting is a moon called Pandora, orbiting a planet from another solar system. The moon is rich in a heavily sought after mineral called Unobtanium (deduct some points off the script writer’s account for being too silly), which is why this big time corporation is doing its best to settle down on the planet and mine it. They do, however, have to rely on military force to do so, because the planet’s dominant inhabitants, a race of humanoids with a society modeled after that of the Indians (as in, Native Americans) do not like this pillaging of their forest planet and fight back.
The corporation doesn’t rely on force alone. Its scientific department, led by a Sigourney Weaver paying some tribute to her Aliens persona, is working on an ingenious project: by mixing human DNA and alien DNA they were able to create avatar bodies that humans can drive, mentally, from the comfort of the home base while these avatars mingle with the locals. Enter Terminator Salvation’s Sam Worthington, the actor that seems to be the hottest thing in the movie world at the moment: he’s an ex-marine with non functioning legs that is offered to drive such an avatar in place of his now dead twin brother for the sole reason he can do it due to the identical genes he shared with the brother. In return, he might get himself new legs.
Initially, Worthington cooperates with the corporation’s marine commander and supplies him with military secrets gathered from the locals. With time, however, his loyalty shifts as he learns to appreciate the beauty of Pandora and its richness, which is firmly tied to the locals’ culture. When the corporation decides to step up its aggressive efforts in disregard of the planet’s eco system, Worthington and his mates are called upon to decide which side they cheer for.
For a science fiction film, one has to immediately acknowledge the weakness of the Avatar’s science. The incredible similarity between Pandora’s biology and earth’s is too incredible; all credibility is lost when we learn that it’s not only that the planet looks like a typical jungle with its typical fauna, but the Pandorians use a DNA code that is mixable with ours. That’s big time bullshit. Some smaller bullshit is there in the shape of connectors that all the creatures of Pandora have, allowing them to interface with one another (do they call these USB, I wonder?); I guess one can argue these interfaces evolved early and were kept by everyone due to their usefulness. Too far fetched, I know. But wait; we’re not over the full list of bull yet. Having had to learn to deal with the insults to your sense of biology as you watch Avatar, you also have to learn to deal with insults to physics: Pandora features floating islands of rock close to its surface that completely defy all sense of gravity (and look more like Magritte's famous picture).
I’ll quit while ahead with this discussion on the science behind Avatar. The main point to be taken from all of the above is the lightness of the plot and its lack of foundation; the second point to be taken from the above is that substance has been sacrificed on the altar of analogy, and by Cameron’s book that’s a fair sacrifice when you are going about preaching green agendas. I think twisting science is bad, but I have to be fair to Cameron and say I agree with his agenda and I fully understand what he was trying to say (some mocking references to our famous War on Terror certainly help me relate to Cameron, too). The Pandorians are too human like because they are an analogy (an avatar?) for us humans on this earth and the battle we wage to keep our planet viable for hosting the infestation called Homo Sapiens, one of the worst biological infestation the planet has known (personified through Avatar’s nameless big corporation).
So is Avatar a doomed film as a result of the problematic end-justifies-the-means way it brings forth its agenda? I say it’s compromised but certainly not doomed. I also say that Avatar, despite all of its deficiencies, is still a hell of a film. And what arguments do I have in my corner support such a claim? Well, it’s all in the presentation, stupid. Never before have I seen a film where special effects have taken center stage so dominantly and so successfully to the point you don’t notice they’re there because you think you’re in a real world.
Do you think Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy looks good? Well, you might want to re-adjust your sense of cinematic aesthetics after watching Avatar, because this film smashes the old scale and builds a new one from scratch. A scale where Avatar is on top and everything else is grouped together way down at the bottom.
With Avatar, you can literally see the millions of dollars poured into the making of each frame. We start with a futuristic human made world, where everything is metallic, symmetric and – well – lifeless. Then we move on to the lush jungles of Pandora, which look so good they’re larger than life. And then we are introduced to the avatars and to the Pandorians, and we never really register that we’re dealing with computer animated graphics and not real people because they just look so good, so convincing, so life like. Indeed, most of the film takes place with the animated avatars in charge rather than the real life actors.
At his point I should discuss Avatar’s 3D presentation. In general, while I like 3D movie presentations, I always thought them compromised: artistically, the effect used to be abused to death by throwing stuff between viewers' eyes; technically, the implementation was suffering and tended to cause nausea and headaches. Two things help remove these problems altogether from Avatar: On the technical side, 3D now uses phase filtering rather than the old green and red glasses, while the cinema projection is digital and avoids the flickering, noise and inconsistency of film. And second, Avatar simply never abuses its 3D ability; instead of poking you in the eye, it goes about using 3D to create a believable world. Suspension of disbelief? What are you talking about? For two hours and forty two minutes (based on my Casio’s stopwatch) I was in Pandora, traversing its jungles.
Last year, I raved here how good Speed Racer was for being able to stretch the art of cinema by combining elements from the manga world into the “real” world, to the point of even creating a surreal yet sense making world. This year, Avatar reshuffles the cards altogether and creates a brand new world out of nothing, a world that seems more real than the majority of conventional cinema’s worlds. And certainly more beautiful. Magritte would have loved watching Avatar.
Best scene: Worthington’s Pandorian female partner hugs Worthington in his human form. Especially in 3D, you can feel them touch one another in a scene that is a touching one rather than a scene boasting the latest in computer graphics. Gollum, it seems, has gone a long way.
Overall: I’m giving Avatar 5 out of 5 stars. Sure, I know it is a flawed film; I spent lots of words specifying just how flawed it is. Yet films like Avatar, where you know you’re witnessing a breakthrough in the world of cinema as you’re watching them, are rare; and make no mistake about it, Avatar is a major breakthrough. Avatar is history in the making. Cinema has gone where no man has gone before; James Cameron has done it again.