James Cameron waited 12 years to follow up his mega blockbuster Titanic but, at the end of 2009, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to return to his thrown as the king of big budget cinema. Cameron’s newest film Avatar is a revelation; a godsend: proof that there are still people in Hollywood who know how to make something meaningful and coherent with $250 million (or however much it cost). Like Steven Speilberg and David Lean before them, Cameron knows how to wrap his head around epic stories and turn them into something spectacular. And even though Avatar is an event of endless special effects and adrenaline fueled excitement, Cameron also knows that special effects are best served when they are enhancing a films reality not substituting it. In 2009 where one film after another off the Hollywood dream factory assembly line has been a noisy, hollow, brain-dead exercise in special effects crashing head on into other special effects, Cameron manages to tell a real story around the spectacle with a real purpose that involves real characters that, despite being mostly animated, an audience can get wrapped up in.
It’s also one of those rare films that shows that special effects are more than hyper speed flashes of colour and noise, but can have depth and gravity, that are quiet and tranquil and that are, at times, so hauntingly beautiful, that we wish, more than anything, for them to go on forever. Avatar is not just an event or an extravaganza then (although it is both), but a modern American masterpiece: a reminder of all the reasons we go to the movies in the first place: to laugh and cry, to be exhilarated, to be dazzled with unimaginable sights and, most of all, to have our hearts and minds stolen away for a brief time in the process.
The story begins with a crippled marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully finds himself on the planet Pandorum which has been invaded by humans after the crumbling of Earth. On Pandorum is a special unit of scientists who have created avatars: lifelike replicas of the local native race Na’vi that are genetically modified to fit the body of those who will occupy them. The purpose of this experiment is to instill trust in the Na’vi in order for the humans to better understand them and their world.
Sully is selected to be part of the Avatar team because, not only does his disability render him useless to the marines but because originally on the project was his twin brother before his death, meaning that his Avatar matches Sully’s DNA perfectly.
In charge of the operation is Dr. Grace Augustine (played with a typical hard edge by Sigourney Weaver) who is not impressed to have an inexperienced fighter on her team when what she needs is a scientist. Unbeknownst to her, the top humans see this opportunity as an easy in and order Sully to report back to them with any information he uncovers from the Na’vi because their home just so happens to sit atop a valuable mineral that would be worth millions to the Americans. If Sully can’t convince them to vacate peacefully, they’ll simply bulldoze the place.
Upon making contact with the Na’vi through Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe leaders, the Na’vi accept Sully to the dismay of her warrior brother who is adamant in his belief that Sully can never be a true Na’vi. Slowly but surely, as Sully learns about the Na’vi and their way of life he falls in love with Neytiri, admitting this to her in one of the film’s most wonderfully romantic scenes. What is particularly remarkable here is how, even though the Na’vi and their environment is completely computer generated, Cameron manages to provide his characters with discernible physical characteristics and human personalities that allow an audience to connect with them and their story on a individual level. Although none of them are real, their characters are so well defined, their relationships so human and their story so meaningful that they begin to take on a certain human dimension until the illusion of watching animation has completely evaporated and there is no disorientation present as the film cuts between animation and its human actors.
What Sully learns is that the Na’vi has a specific psychological connection to nature and their surroundings through their ponytails. With them they can connect mentally with animals that they can then control for hunting purposes and with their sacred tree which holds all of their heritage and memories. This of course touches Sully deeply and he begins to turn against the Americans who desire personal gain even at the expense of obliterating a species.
This story is the stuff of classic American folklore and Western storytelling: of the civilized man who enters back into the wild in order to tame it and introduce it to progress. Only this time that man is consumed by the purity and tranquility of the wilderness and finds himself reborn into the true, uncomplicated utopia of Na’vi existence. The film thus stops being an evolved special effects blockbuster and instead reveals itself as a deeply personal yet subtle social commentary.
The parallels to Iraq and the ingrained anti-war statements are clear, but even more meaningful is the inherent contradiction of this message within the medium of this film: as if Cameron is taking us both forwards and backwards at the same time. It’s evolution through devolution. That the message of returning and being reborn into nature, thus finding ones true inner identity, occurs in such a technically evolved film, packed to the brim with state-of-the-art special effects and exhilarating action sequences, is very heartening. Cameron knows, as all great storytellers must, that the best, most meaningful stories or parables are born from the lessons of the past. That’s how they derive their meaning. That’s why people relate to them. In a world consumed by technology, all we really yearn for is to be reintroduced to the simplicity of nature. That’s why almost every big budget, special effects driven Hollywood film in 2009 failed: they neglected to tell meaningful stories at the expense of the spectacle. That Cameron manages to tell one, especially one as powerful and socially relevant as this one, is a breathtaking reminder of what films used to and still can be.
So then, in the third act, when war breaks out between the Na’vi and the humans, resulting in an unending action sequence of such visual mastery that it must be seen to be believed (none of this shaky, incomprehensible stuff that passes for action sequences these days), this outcome is justified as the story has earned it by investing our personal interests in the results of the war instead of just being anxious to get to blowing stuff up.
I’m reminded then, of a great Christopher Walken scene in Poolhall Junkies in which he leans over to the hero and asks him if he ever watches the animal channel. He tells the kid how the lion, king of the jungle, sits around all day while the other animals go around, giving him flack until one day he gets up and tears into all of them. Why does he do it? To show them who he is. With Titanic, and now Avatar, James Cameron has shown himself to be that lion. In 2009, while Hollywood drowns its credibility in a sea of meaningless special effects spectacles, Cameron returns from hibernation to show us what great films are all about. This isn’t just a film: it’s film history being written
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