Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron
Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
Neytiri – Zoë Saldana
Grace – Sigourney Weaver
Col. Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon – Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge – Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman – Joel David Moore
Moat – CCH Pounder
This Visual Masterpiece is a Must-see Despite a Dreadful Script
James Cameron’s resume is extensive and vividly familiar to anyone who’s ever had the notion to watch science fiction films. The man brought us the screenplay for Alien, then he directed the first two Terminator movies, then he was behind Titanic, one of the highest-grossing films in history. It shouldn’t be a surprise that once again, he’s ahead of the technological curve with this year’s holiday release, Avatar.
For Avatar, a movie the director has dreamed about since his twenties, Cameron used a “physics based sim” and a modified version of the Fusion camera to create a three-dimensional experience like absolutely none other. The movie has been heralded as a turning point for film technology, and frankly, that is probably true. The film is, visually at least, wholly unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Due to the technology Cameron used (and helped to invent, according to advance press), CG in Avatar doesn’t enhance the movie, it is the movie—but watching the flora and fauna of Pandora doesn’t feel like watching CG. In 3D, the film is an experience in immersion: once the characters are placed onto the moon Pandora, the audience is drowned in gorgeous scenery the likes of which earth has never seen before.
The film follows Jake Sully, a marine who lost the use of his legs in battle, as he travels to Pandora, a moon orbiting a far off planet, ostensibly in order to play dual roles as security guard for researchers and military spy. Sully and his counterparts are Avatar drivers, which means they inhabit surrogate creatures created from a mix of human and native DNA. The natives, called the Na’vi, are twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed humanoids whose behavior and rituals are similar to that of Native Americans. They are a highly spiritual and naturalistic tribe whose connection to their planet lies not just in their ancestry, but in actual biological synthesis with its creatures and vegetation. If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is.
Historically science fiction allows immense room for playing with societal concerns. The Red Scare, the Cold war, fears of the A-bomb, mistrust toward technology, racism, environmental issues: all have been tackled by sci-fi’s greatest authors and filmmakers. In the current economic and social climate, this year’s science fiction films have taken on hot-button issues including human greed, apartheid (District 9), and ecology. It can’t be a coincidence that in the year’s best science fiction humans are the enemy. In Avatar, the greedy corporate CEO (Giovanni Ribisi) and the seasoned, hardcore colonel (Stephen Lang) lock horns with biological researcher Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of avid conservationists. As well as being home to the Na’vi, Pandora is populated by a natural fuel resource the government will literally kill for.
The story and script fail to create multifaceted characters, sticking instead to the inherent malevolence of military invasion and corporate America’s insatiable appetite for resources and money. In our current time of war and economic instability, these are significant social issues, but the film handles them ham-handedly, pitting stock characters against one another in an epic moral (and physical) battle between conservation and greed. The dialogue and Jake’s voice-over are terribly written (Cameron is also responsible for the screenplay), and the characters are static. Anyone who’s seen a science fiction film before will know the tropes: man travels to another world, falls in love, and ends up fighting for the culture he ostensibly came to study/gain resources from/demolish. Luckily the movie is a visual spectacle; else it would be yet another played-out sci-fi epic.
Cameron has been in the news recently regarding his tendency to write strong female roles. In a lengthy New Yorker article, he mentions that in order to create strong women, you write dialogue for men and then change the names. Sigourney Weaver’s career truly began with her role as Ripley in Alien (a character whose masculine tendencies are highly debated in feminist film criticism), and she returns to Cameron to play another strong-willed but ultimately doomed character. Grace smokes like a chimney, curses like a sailor (as much as can be done in a PG-13 film, anyway), and she’s willing to resort to physical combat for her beliefs. Zoë Saldana’s Na’vi love interest Neytiri and Michelle Rodriguez’s fighter pilot Trudy are yet other dominant females, but Cameron is no feminist ally. In a Playboy interview, he discussed how to create the perfect alien breasts for Neytiri, although the Na’vi aren’t placental mammals and therefore don’t require breasts. He knows how to appeal to teenage boys, and he does it well.
Visually, the film is truly a masterwork. Pandora is an affectionately rendered bioluminescent paradise. Characters physically link to their surroundings via grasping tentacles that appear from their long braids. Seeds float through the air like jellyfish, flora gleam with incandescent radiance when touched, and creatures unlike any you’ve seen before synthesize a world that is as unfamiliar to us as the bottom of the sea. But the magnificent flying creatures and the gorgeous vegetation feel so real you could reach into the screen and stroke them.
Though the movie is flawed and ham-handed, it’s imperative to view in the theater; the visual splendor and realism are absolutely jaw dropping. Home theater technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to be able to support a film like this one, so if there’s any movie you see in theaters this year, it should be Avatar. It’s a challenge not to be completely captivated and immersed despite the script’s laughable stupidity, and audiences searching for an escape from the winter doldrums will not be disappointed.