Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) dreams of flying. As he describes the wartime trauma that left him with a paralyzing spinal injury, he imagines the best possible outcome, or rather, the impossible one, as he leaves behind the “big hole blown into [his] heart” and begins to soar, above and beyond his broken self. In the dream, “I was free,” he says, then adds, “Eventually, you have to wake up.”
At the start of Avatar, in 2154, Jake is embarking on a waking version of this dream. As figured through the prism of Digital Domain. Jim Cameron’s special effects outfit, his new, flying body is about 10 feet tall, sinewy and blue, with a face that resembles his own. Or rather, a face that resembles that of his twin brother, a scientist recently killed. Jake’s been solicited to replace the brother in his last project, that is, a study of the Na’vi tribe headed by the brilliant xenobotanist Grace (Sigourney Weaver). Her interest is strictly scientific (“There is really something interesting going on in there, biologically”), and she’s investigating from within the tribe, or more precisely, from within an avatar, genetically engineered from a mixture of human and Na’vi DNA. Because Jake is a DNA match for his dead sibling, he can can “drive” his avatar; even better, he does this remotely, from inside a sensory deprivation tank. In other words, as the avatar, he can walk again — indeed, he can run, leap, and even fly, aboard one of the green and orange beasties the Na’vi like to ride.
For Jake, the opportunity is irresistible. For the movie, it’s an ingenious premise, allowing its hero to move between realms — the futuristic lab populated by humans and the tribe’s thick forest, where flora is gargantuan and the sunsets stunning, and daily life proceeds in perfect harmony with CGI-ed “nature.” On his first drive, despite his utter lack of training and general arrogance, Jake is smitten: he loves his new body, his newfound ability to sprint and scamper and ride, his dream made real.
The hitch in all gamboling good fun this is vintage Cameron. By the time Jake comes on board with Grace’s project, the Na’vi and their planet Pandora have also been targeted by a military-industrial outfit with grand exploitation plans (see also: The Company, of Aliens). The company’s target is a rare mineral, the delightfully named unobtanium (read: oil or any other resource that’s inspired war and decimation for profits), and the on-site team is led by Administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the brutal Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). These guys, like Burke before them, will do anything to get what they want, from burning down forests to committing genocide.
Because Jake is a soldier first, and not a little impatient with Grace’s slow-and-steady approach, Quaritch makes use of him, planning to use the information Jake gathers not to work with the Na’vi, but to defeat them. Profoundly slow on the uptake, Jake doesn’t begin to consider consequences until he’s met a second object of affection (after his own/brother’s avatar), a striking female Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Assigned by her chieftain father Eytukan (Wes Studi) to train Jake, Neytiri is plainly drawn from the Pocahontas myth. A native, huge-eyed beauty who embodies the resources and ideals the intruder has come to exploit, she’s unimpressed by her first encounter with Jake, then comes to appreciate his enthusiasm, however crass. At the same time, following Pocahontas’ Captain John Smith, Jake comes to appreciate his teacher. And here again, Cameron borrows from himself, as Jake — like Reece in The Terminator and Leo in Titanic — will also make a sacrifice for the sake of his excellent girlfriend.
As this not-so-new plot takes shape over 160-some minutes, Jake and Neytiri fall in a kind of love (he’s not exactly honest about who he is, of course), while Jake and Grace jump back and forth between the lab and the forest. This movement allows for comparisons between the two realms imagined and constructed by Cameron (in both 3D and IMAX). Reportedly, he’s been working on the concept — and especially the technology — since he was king of the world via Titanic 12 years ago (the Avatar story is apparently 15 years old). And that technology is frequently awesome, rendering the Na’vi world in vivid hues and gorgeous dimensions, rounded out by Worthington and Saldana’s mostly absorbing motion-capture performances.
But still. Avatar works its critique of the humans’ big-bad invasion hard, with the marines reduced to foul-mouthed jarheads (Quaritch sends his noisily high-powered choppers to destroy the “blue monkeys”) and the native peoples utterly magnificent, admirably in tune with their trees and fellow digital creatures. On top of Jake and Neytiri’s musty romance, the film offers up an array of stereotypes, from sassy pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez, typecast) to perpetually breathless nerd Norm (Joel David Moore), from the spiritual tribe members to the monstrous marines, earth mother Grace to bad daddy Quaritch.
For all its powerful technologies and even Grace’s subtler dimensions (she’s so tough and cool she smokes in her lab and no one makes a peep), Avatar can’t get out from under its essential cardboardness. It can point to the evil effects of racism, but remains entrenched in the fundamental premise: the tribe both endangered and saved by the cowboy, the marine, the same-old romantic lead. Okay, so he’s also blue, in an appropriative and opportunistic way. He’s still the One.