[National Review; December 20, 2009]
In Avatar’s opening moments, hero-to-be Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is waking up on the planet Pandora after a cryogenic journey, and reflecting on the twists of fate. Here he is, a paraplegic Marine, filling in for the twin brother who actually trained for this mission. But right before Tommy was due to ship out, “a guy with a gun put an end to his journey, for the paper in his wallet.”
Sounds like a line from a Forties detective movie, doesn’t it? Or how about this one: Evil Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) barks at his troops, “You are not in Kansas any more, ladies and gentlemen. If there is a hell, you might want to go there for some R&R after a spell on Pandora.” (The colonel, you may be sure, has a trace of a Southern accent.) Later, he tells Jake, “You got some heart, kid, showing up in this neighborhood.”
Jake replies offhandedly, “I figured it was just another hellhole.”
I think you get the picture. In this film, though, there are two pictures. Later on, Jake walks among the Na’vi, the gentle people of Pandora, by means of an avatar — that is, a Na’vi body that was grown in a test tube, which he remote-controls from a high-tech pod at the base camp. His lovely tutor, Neytiri (excellently portrayed by Zoë Saldaña), explains that he, too, will one day ride the enormous mountain banshees — something like tie-dyed pterodactyls—which in the native lingo are called (I think) “eclans.” “You must choose your own eclan, and he must choose you,” says Neytiri.
“When?” Jake asks.
“When you are ready,” she replies.
Later, Neytiri watches approvingly as Jake goes through the ritual that accompanies killing for food. “I see you, brother,” Jake says as he delivers the final blow, “and I thank you. Your spirit will depart, and your body stay here to become part of the People.”
Sorry to put you through that, but there’s really no way to describe just how inane this dialogue is. The plot it is meant to sustain is every bit its equal. You see, humans have destroyed the earth’s ecology. (“You will find nothing green there,” Jake tells the Na’vi tribe. “They killed their mother.”) Now they seek the resources of other worlds, in particular the rich lode of a priceless mineral under Pandora’s crust.
This mineral is called “unobtainium.” It really, truly is. And the richest reserves of unobtainium lie beneath the giant, ancient tree where the Na’vi live. The bad colonel intends to get at it, one way or another (insert sound of knuckles cracking here). He tells Jake, “I need to find out how to force their cooperation, or hammer them hard if they don’t.”
Yet in presenting the apparently eternal conflict between gentle people with flowers in their hair and technology-crazed meanies, Avatar comes to us by means of the most advanced technology available. Director James Cameron took 14 years to make the movie, inventing a new process for 3-D in order to film it. He took the motion-capture technology that gave us Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and advanced it several major steps forward. This film was not made by folks who live in a giant tree.
And it’s unclear how this plaintive call to live in tune with nature is supposed to be implemented by the viewers who take it to heart. Should we demand that our popcorn be made over a campfire? Then hoof it home in a Fred Flintstone car?
I don’t need to tell you that, at 161 minutes, Avatar is far too long for material this thin. This story has been told plenty of times before, and better. You can also expect that a hectic, noisy battle scene is surely on the way, one that consumes great quantities of film in showing us what looks like a video game.
What I didn’t expect was the sheer beauty of the film. It won me over. I think it was the forests of Pandora that first broke through my grumpy attitude — the graceful trees, plants with enormous fan-like leaves, curious twisted ferns that shyly retract when touched. Everything is glowing in lavender, blue, and aqua; it could have been painted by Maxfield Parrish.
The highly anticipated 3-D process is most successful, I think, with the “seeds of the sacred tree,” a cross between a butterfly, a spider, and a dandelion puff. When these seeds begin drifting down, they really do seem to leave the screen and float over the heads of the audience.
Yet more beautiful were the Floating Mountains. These enormous floating rocks, crowned with trees and trailing vines, are truly awe-inspiring; they are worthy, I thought, of J. R. R. Tolkien.
So, yes, you need to see this movie, and see it while it’s in theaters, full-screen and in 3-D. Yes, you can take the kids, but only if they can handle some violent moments. The most graphic, I thought, came when a Na’vi spoke his last words with a shattered tree limb through his chest. There’s no nudity (though the cat-like Na’vis’ costumes are quite scanty) and the single love scene is swift and discreet.
Avatar is a perplexing mix of glorious method and crummy material, and it left me wondering why, in the hands of one artist, a familiar tale can move us even more profoundly because of those earlier links, and we call it a “classic” — while in the hands of another artist it seems derivative and stale. Why, in the hands of one artist, can a work express childlike wonder, while another’s reveals childish immaturity? The characters pushed around in this story seem like something thought up by a twelve-year-old. This is most ludicrous in the climactic battle, when bad Col. Quaritch survives a series of death-dealing blows that are increasingly hard to believe; at one point, his shoulder is literally on fire. I pictured Cameron killing Quaritch off with great satisfaction each day, then coming back the next day saying, “But I can’t let him die yet!”
Some artists remain in touch with the inspirations and enthusiasms of their twelve-year-old selves, and produce something fresh and moving. There’s no reason that this script had to be as flat as it is. But, oh, the beauty. James Cameron may have a tin ear for dialogue, but he indisputably has an artist’s eye. Go see it on the big screen, and let yourself be dazzled.