Avatar

I just watched Avatar in 3D for the second time, and I’ll say it: I love this movie. I will own it on blu-ray, I will get it in 3D as soon as I can get it in 3D, and I will watch it over and over again until something more beautiful comes out, which I doubt will be very long.

The story is simple, and on second viewing the thick melodrama of the dialogue melts into pure hokum. An evil corporation flies across the galaxy to an alien paradise called Pandora to strip-mine it for unobtanium, a highly-concentrated energy source needed to preserve a dying Earth. The native Na’vi are ten foot tall slender blue humanoids with carbon fiber skeletons, small breasts and serendipitously heart-shaped asses. They live, of course, right on top of the mother lode. The head of military operations wants to take them out.

A paraplegic ex-marine, Jake Sully, remote pilots a human-Na’vi hybrid body like a VR puppet; hence the name of the movie. He’s supposed to infiltrate the Na’vi and come back with valuable data for the military, but instead falls in love with the chief’s daughter and discovers that every living thing on the planet is interconnected together in a huge Gaia network.

If you can’t guess what happens next, I won’t spoil it for you, but if you think you know, you’re probably right. Hint: there will be a spectacular explodiriffic inter-civilization donnybrook. Heroes will do heroic things, and die doing them. There will be a heart-pounding showdown between the hero and the villain. True love will triumph.

Subtlety is not the script’s strong suit, and there’s no nuance in its unabashedly political message. For that some people will love it, and others will hate it. I just think that in fifty years it will make interesting commentary on our times and the less subtle ideologies they gave rise to.

Look, this story has been told a hundred times before, titled Dances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai, or A Man Called Horse, you name it. It’s been told better, but it’s told well here, and the reason it keeps getting told is that it works.

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t care about the story. The story is beside the point. The point is that this movie looks like Cameron hopped in a space ship and flew to Pandora to shoot all of this in camera. Have you ever seen the BBC series Planet Earth? The first half of this film is Planet Pandora, a stunning National Geographic travelogue of this strange world, its flora and fauna and strange native customs.

If there’s one thing I cannot be counted on to attempt objectivity about, it’s exploring lush alien landscapes. I grew up a geeky, galky teenager reading Anne McAffrey and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and there is nothing I like more than seeing fantastic alien landscapes and peoples made real, and that’s what Cameron does here. He creates an entire world, an acid drenched world of neon jellyfish  by night that turns technicolor Amazon in the day. He never throws a three-dimensional spear into the audience, or makes things leap out of the screen in disruptive ways, but instead uses 3D to add depth to the scene, as if we are watching a 3D videogram from the future.

The real scene stealers in the movie are the Na’vi, virtual creatures that look so real you want to cry when you see anguish on their faces, as you frequently do. The performance capture technology seen in this movie is like literally nothing I have ever seen before. The subtlety of expression on the face of Neytiri, the Na’vi princess played by Zoe Saldana, is so convincing that you believe it. It looks real. It’s frankly amazing. Saldana’s performance here is her own, refracted through a blue giantess with yellow cat eyes and pale tiger stripes.

That is what is special about this movie. That, and inevitable huge land and air battle between the humans and Pandora. No red-blooded American boy who grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi and comic books can look you straight in the eye and say he doesn’t want to see a giant interplanetary battle full of wrath and pathos. I couldn’t, at any rate.

The story, if resigned to melodrama and derivation, at least animates the retelling with genuine enthusiasm and gusto, trading suspension of disbelief for fantastic visuals and soaring journeys through flying mountains.

The characters could have been cardboard stereotypes (some of which Cameron himself created), but for a host of strong performances by the well-chosen leads. Although, perhaps ironically, Jake Worthington’s performance in a dual role as Jake Sully and his blue alter ego never quite stands up to miss Saldana’s, he creates a cocky, good-natured grunt who is floored first by the jaw-dropping beauty of the world he’s been shipped to, and then by Saldana’s typically spunky, adventurous, passionate chieftan’s daughter.

Stephen Lang has one of the best turns of the film as the head of the military forces on Pandora, and manages somehow to give a cigar-chomping performance without ever actually chomping a Cigar. He really chews the scenery up as the guy you love to hate, and he milks it for every last drop of awesome. Sigourney Weaver’s gruff, cigarette-chomping scientist with a heart of gold is pure vintage Cameron, and Michelle Rodriguez is a similarly strong Cameron heroine who flies choppers and shoots things. Cameron has a good eye for tough chicks, and Rodriguez, like Lang, plays her small but meaty role with all the gung ho gusto she can muster, which is a lot.

If you’re one of those indie drama queens who constantly sniffs about how nobody makes movies at a human scale any more and wonders aloud about whether technology is killing the soul of the medium, you won’t like this movie. This movie is pure Hollywood, a ridiculously expensive mass entertainment whose impact depends on spectacle–but what spectacle! This kind of movie is what Hollywood is about. It brings magic to the movies in a way not seen in years, or, I dare say, since May of ‘77. Kurosawa proved with The Hidden Fortress that a movie doesn’t have to be deep to be great. Go see this one.

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