Like many of the best James Cameron protagonists, Jake Sully—the crippled Marine and accidental ambassador of humanity in Avatar—is both astoundingly arrogant and self-assured, and yet without a home. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack in Titanic and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens, Jake has confidence to spare, verging on reckless. Yet he’s an outcast, riven between worlds, and fated to battle for survival against incredible odds. Sully seems another of the filmmaker’s combative, daring, and inventive stand-ins for himself. You don’t doubt that if the film’s multi-hyphenate (writer/director/producer/editor) found himself on another world, without the use of his legs, facing doubt and ridicule from all corners, he’d probably do just fine.
From the figure of Jake (Sam Worthington), rolling in his wheelchair off a space transport onto an alien world where he will find his quasi-religious purpose, to the vistas of alien beings aligning themselves in a grand armada against the genocidal human corporate mercenaries fighting for access to precious raw materials, Avatar is the prototypical Cameron event-film. It’s a story of cataclysmic battles and personal revelations, punched through with exclamation marks and related via ground-breaking special effects that work overtime to heighten the emotional impact of the primal drama on display. It’s also—more uniquely to this entry in Cameron’s oeuvre—a metaphor for our society’s benighted state, where uploading one’s consciousness into a grander, more worldly and aware creature, serves as the ultimate escape from a venal and polluted (in every sense of the word) present reality.
Set about a century and a half in the future, Avatar drops its hero (a Marine wounded in some pointless brushfire war in Argentina) on the planet of Pandora. There, a massive Halliburton-like company has been given essential autonomy to strip-mine the world for a rare substance, Unobtainium, that provides desperately needed energy back on an apparently environmentally devastated and overcrowded Earth.
To that end, the company enlists a force of roughneck mercenaries, many recently ex-military (another stinging allusion to our current state of affairs), who are trying to carve out more human-friendly space on a pretty inhospitable world. If a swath of Pandora’s fantastically predatory animals (Cameron had a field day inventing these things, a befanged menagerie from some dark and unknown corner of the Jurassic Era) and its tall, blue-skinned, humanoid inhabitants, the Na’vi, get slaughtered along the way, then that’s the price of entrepreneurial mineral resource expropriation.
Coexisting uneasily alongside this transplanted corporate-military complex are a batch of scientists trying to study the indigenous flora and fauna, as well as the proud and withdrawn Na’vi, a warrior people clearly meant to evoke the Native American tribes doomed in their fight against the ever-encroaching European people. Jake is on Pandora because his very recently-dead brother worked with these scientists, and somebody with his DNA is needed to enter the consciousness of an avatar, a specially bred Na’vi who can then be used to research the planet’s surface and interact with its inhabitants.
Disliked as a cripple by the company’s macho gunsels, and distrusted as a trigger-happy soldier boy by the scientists, Jake jumps into his new career as an avatar driver, if for no other reason than it gives him the chance to walk and run again—even if it’s while his real body lays unconscious in a research lab, hooked up to machines. Once he has infiltrated the Na’vi, it isn’t long, though, before Jake—a defensive and distrustful follower of orders—starts questioning what the humans are doing on Pandora, and falling in love with the Na’vi, especially one particularly svelte and feline huntress, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, acting with a brand of ferocious passion rarely seen in animated creations).
At first, Cameron establishes a brisk momentum, staging viewers into his densely-layered alien world, where trees grow to the size of the World Trade Center and an entire mountain range floats in midair. The humanist-militarist tension is thickly palpable, as it only can be when moralists stand between an industrial enterprise and its source of profit. Those representing either side—the scarred ex-Marine Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, who looks carved from a sinewy and tanned block of marble) and head researcher Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver, delivering some impeccably voiced sarcastic barbs)—are equally contemptuous and disinterested in compromise.
While the dramatic stage is well-set, it’s once Avatar starts hacking into the dense exposition of Pandora itself that Cameron begins to set his epic apart. The level of complexity found in this creation, from a whole new alien language to the planet’s interlocking system of biological checks and balances, is something not previously seen in science-fiction film. It feels whole, complete, and Tolkienesque, much like the world of Pandora itself.
The awesome beauty with which Cameron paints his sumptuously photographed 3-D landscapes (his characters spend a suspicious amount of time racing along tree branches high above ground, all the better to indulge the format’s love of depth perspective) achieves a level of alien wonder that carries many hints of the written genre’s space opera greats, but has practically never been achieved before on screen. Cameron’s evocations of everything from Blackwater’s Iraq massacres to the Trail of Tears gives his story an uncommon resonance. This is a whole new kind of science fiction filmmaking, something particularly grandly spectacular, even if occasionally daft and overblown.
As Avatar roars toward a great, planet-shaking sequence of battles (tilt-rotor gunships battling bow-wielding Na’vi on winged, dragon-like creatures), it loses some of the dramatic tension that charged up such a head of steam in the beginning. Some of this has to do with the film’s love story, which is wounded not by the essence of the story itself (which is, in fact, quite potently romantic) but by Worthington’s performance. A skilled performer with a quiet dignity, Worthington can’t nearly match Saldana’s fire. There is also too much of an outdated, noble savage aura to Cameron’s treatment of the Na’vi, like something that artists of an earlier era might have presented Native Americans.
Or maybe it’s the glasses. Perhaps there is a limit to how seriously one can take a film that is best seen through oversized Ray-Bans.