Posted on Thursday, December 17th, 2009 by Russ Fischer
James Cameron sure can build a world. His obsessive, detail-oriented approach to filmmaking is particularly suited to inventing alternate environments; in another life he might have been a magnificent city planner. Pandora, the world on which his film Avatar takes place, is rich in strange and beautiful detail. It’s a pulp wonderland, the sort of world that would make Robert E. Howard nod in approval. The science fiction of his teen years, the building blocks of early films like Aliens and the hidden sights discovered in his mid-life underwater career are recombined into an environment that becomes more than the sum of its parts.
When Pandora is allowed to take center stage it makes a hell of a subject. Cameron is fully engaged while exploring the planet’s verdant beauty, or, ironically, when blowing it to pieces. But while building his world the designer in James Cameron took precedence over the screenwriter. There’s an argument to be made that a story with roots so deep in pulp adventure doesn’t need to be well-scripted. I can’t get behind such a viewpoint. That a place imagined to the most minute detail should be home to a story so thin is the film’s greatest irony.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) goes to Pandora to get his legs back. There, he can take control of an alien body and join the effort to mine an ultra-rare mineral out from under the feet of the planet’s natives. The Na’vi, as they’re called, aren’t much interested in helping the mining process, so a few scientists led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) act like the alien Peace Corps and try to placate and study them, while the military, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, making a serious play for most intense villain of the year) does the hardcore ‘diplomatic’ work.
The military holds sway over all because the planet is incredibly dangerous. Lithe, savagely reptilian beasts prowl the jungle floors and canopies, and the Na’vi are wicked with a bow and arrow. In his alien body, Jake encounters the giant blue natives and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of a tribal leader, instructs him in their ways.
The often-heralded danger of Pandora, however, rarely manifests in any meaningful way. Lang’s Col. Quaritch is a badass, yes, and he’s obviously had his scraps with the planet. But he’s alive. Jake has his own encounters, but he’s alive, too. We’re frequently told that Pandora is a deathtrap, but we never see anyone caught in it. We see little evidence that the Na’vi have anything less than an ideal balance with the flora and fauna. And until things really come to a head, there is no significant human / Na’vi conflict.
When the forces do clash, early warnings about the Na’vi (“they are very hard to kill”) seem like exaggerations. (Perhaps they are; propaganda wouldn’t be out of place here. But that’s more subtle than anything else Cameron has written into the film.) As the war machines roll into motion the natives fall like any humans would: easily. You might wonder what all the fuss was about. Thing is, if the movie didn’t spend so much setup time telling me how dangerous Pandora and the Na’vi are, I never would have worried about it.
Whether made of titanium or tissue paper, the Na’vi are nearly a perfect race. They’re so in tune with the land that they actually have physical means to connect their nervous system with that of some plants and animals. Arguments are easily solved by a ruling hierarchy, and mating is for life (a not-insignificant part of the fantasy, coming from Cameron, who has gone through more than one high-profile breakup). Various tribes exist, but there is little sense of conflict between them.
There’s no such harmony in the human camp, which is overseen by callous corporate lackey Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, outdoing Paul Reiser’s slimy Aliens performance). Selfridge gives his military leader loads of rope, while Augustine’s crew tries to get some morally respectable work done in the margins.
The Na’vi and human sides serve to rough in a simplistic, if not incorrect moral code: nature is good, entitlement is bad, community is good, corporation is bad. Cameron cares so much about the moral message that he abandons nuance altogether. Relative positions are quickly established, as when Jake, fresh from his first run as a Na’vi, encounters Quaritch as the officer suits up in his own avatar: a combat version of the Aliens power loader.
The parallels between human and Na’vi life and technology are distractingly pushed to the foreground. One of the most consistently interesting things in Cameron’s filmmaking — the way he can decry military development while utterly fetishizing it — is here in spades, but by the time the film’s climax rolled around, in which we’re meant to ooh and aah as very big military weapons do some very bad things, I wished that he could just move on and spend a lot more time building a proper story.
The script is no more able to bear heavy loads than are Jake’s crippled human legs (which, incidentally, are featured in one of the most affecting digital shots in a film crammed with beautiful digital artistry). It is built on contrivances and worn-out tropes. The noble savage and mystic prophecies. Odd Na’vi rituals that exist only to serve the script. The avatar program itself. The tale is pure fantasy, in the sense that despite hardship and loss, there’s little sense of sacrifice. It’s a story with no surprises — no reveals, no reversals, no hidden motives. (One character’s intentions are hidden, but not from us.) Nothing significant happens that you wouldn’t expect; twenty minutes into the film anyone with a life of seeing adventure movies could predict beat by beat how Avatar will play out.
Lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a significant flaw. Again, this is pulp storytelling on a massive canvas. Story is all-important, but the telling can overcome the thing itself. Both story and telling are quite simple here, the better to show off Pandora and the deep, brutal conflict simmering on the planet. But the real pain and power of that conflict gets shortchanged in favor of bombast and big lessons written in sky-high neon. I’m sincerely glad that all his time spent underwater has given the man a new perspective on nature, but it seems to have waterlogged his storytelling sensibilities.
Whenever the film pulls back to just take in the splendor of Pandora, it works. It’s bloody beautiful, like Roger Dean‘s entire catalog come to life. When we fly with Jake and Neytiri on the backs of giant winged Banshees, everything Cameron is trying to do crystallizes into pure enjoyment. When the planet is shattered by violence, the visual displays of anguish are more effective than any of the broadly scripted speeches.
Those moments of wonder and horror work, in part, because of what’s in the eyes. Here we see the culmination of three decades’ worth of James Cameron’s obsession with film technology. Everything that Robert Zemeckis has been struggling to achieve with motion capture animation is right on the screen here. The ultimate insult (or inspiration) is that it looks so effortless. Cameron’s animators have captured just as much detail in the Na’vi characters as the designers have in the shady corners of Pandora.
Furthermore, Avatar is very much like Star Trek in that the work of the cast overcomes many script shortages. Sam Worthington is believable, and often quite good, as both Jake Sully and his alien avatar. Worthington may not be as expressive as a star has to be, but that suits Jake. And the animation of his avatar exaggerates his acting just enough to boost the character’s energy. After this, every action star may well want an animator to redraw and emphasize their work.
Zoe Saldana is fantastic as Neytiri, the Na’vi princess who tutors and then loves Jake. She’s got to spit out a bunch of by the book ‘irritated native’ talk about how Jake walks through the forest like a child, and she sells it with utter conviction. The chemistry between Saldana and Worthington is palpable, and is a credit to both the actors and the many technicians that bring life to their blue bodies. Sigourney Weaver brings some depth to a thinly-written part; she injects warmth and humor to a role that could have been dry.
And when I say that Stephen Lang is great, I mean that he’s really goddamn great. His part is completely one-dimensional and the most evil thing on two legs, and thanks to Lang you can’t even think about looking away from him. Like all the cast, he just dives in, and the movie is much better for his commitment.
That’s the other grand irony of Avatar: years in the making and millions of dollars of technology later, it all comes down to the people inside. When they’re given as much free reign to create as James Cameron has, many shortcoming are minimized and you’re actually transported to a distant world.
/Film score: 7 out of 10
Some further notes that bear mentioning but don’t really fit anywhere in particular:
– ‘Dances with Wolves in Space’ is easy to throw around, yes, as are comparisons to Dune. (Jake’s avatar is his stillsuit; his blue skin matches the blue eyes of Fremen; he earns a title very much like that of Kwisatz Haderach, etc.) But as is probably evident from the text above, the film reminded me of Cameron, particularly Aliens, more than anything else.
– Indeed, away from the Pandora jungle, Avatar‘s scenes are so trademark Cameron that they could be cut into Aliens and some casual viewers might not immediately catch on. Camera and character movement are completely recognizable. Set aside the fancy pop-up displays, and the building and tech designs all look as if they come from the Aliens universe. Music cues have Cameron’s trademark *clang clang* accents. There’s even a motion detector or two. None of that is a value judgment, merely an observation. I like that sort of consistency, and while the elements were a bit distracting the first time, I’ll probably love them if I see Avatar again.