Twelve years ago, with the haunting and magnificent soap-opera disaster movie Titanic, James Cameron proved not just that he was king of the world of big-spectacle filmmakers, but that he was a popular artist for the ages. Bowling the audience over with effects-driven awe was only half the story; what Titanic demonstrated is that in a truly great film, your heart will go on the journey as well. In Avatar, his 3-D alien-jungle virtual-reality action-adventure epic, Cameron has the effects-driven visual awe part down, but this time he gives the heart short shrift. The result is less a movie for the ages than a quintessential movie of its time: dazzling and immersive, a ravishing techno-dream for the senses, but one that’s likely to leave audiences simultaneously amazed and unmoved. Then again, for a great many moviegoers these days, that may be enough.
As every fantasy geek in the universe knows by now, Avatar is set on Pandora, a human colony outpost light-years from Earth. There, a consortium of corporate and military forces are attempting to mine a rare mineral in order to solve a devastating energy crisis. To achieve its ends, the consortium seeks to gain the cooperation of Pandora’s native population, the Na’vi, a tribe of tall, proud blue-skinned forest dwellers as lithe as gazelles. To win their trust, the humans have created the Avatar Program, in which a human ”driver” climbs into what looks like a sensory-deprivation tank and has his or her consciousness fused with that of an avatar, a genetically engineered Na’vi specimen created from a mixture of human and Na’vi DNA.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine hero who has lost the use of his legs, is recruited to be the latest avatar pilgrim. Rejuvenated as a handsome Na’vi with long braided ponytail, the giant yellow eyes of a mountain lion, and a zebra-striped torso so long and lean and chiseled he looks like Michelangelo’s David after a marathon abs workout, Jake is exhilarated by his new state. (He can walk again! Not to mention run and leap with super-human agility.) And maybe that’s why the Na’vi, led by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), the tribal leader’s daughter who rescues him in the forest, take a liking to Jake, adopting him as an apprentice warrior.
As Jake learns to shoot bows and arrows, to tame and fly creatures that resemble psychedelic griffins, and to fend off the scary beasties of the forest — they include a snarling mega-dog and one that’s like a giant beetle crossed with a stegosaurus — Cameron hits his stride as a filmmaker of transporting and visionary fairy-tale-spectacle flair. Pandora itself is a grand and tactile forest landscape, a fusion of the ancient and the new, with monstrous looming flora, branches and giant vines twisted into perilous walkways, and mountains that float in the air, all of it lit by a kind of primeval-purplish, nearly underwater glow. At times, Pandora looks like what I imagined years ago when I read The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson’s version, at least to my eyes, is a more earthbound, less otherworldly place than J.R.R. Tolkien described). The originality of this jungle is that it seems vertiginously suspended, with sky above and chasms below. The best way to describe Cameron’s use of 3-D is that there’s hardly a shot in the movie that invites you to notice it. There’s no jutting gimmickry, no spears in the audience’s faces. Rather, the whole world is heightened, popping, bolder than life. Then again, that’s what great fantasy films, from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars, have always achieved. I?m not sure if the 3-D of Avatar is really much more than a gilded-lily enhancement.
It’s the story, and the characters, that could have used another dimension or two. At first, the Na’vi, including Jake, impress us with their fluid, prancing movements and the individuality of their facial features. (When Sigourney Weaver, as Jake’s feistiest overseer, shows up in avatar form, she looks mischievously like Sigourney Weaver.) But the more the movie goes on, the less expressive those faces come to seem, because there’s no subtext to them. Something about that blue skin is too smoothly virtual, with too much of a robotic digital sheen. The faces lack idiosyncrasy, and after a while it’s hard not to notice that that’s what the characters are lacking too. Worthington, both as the ”real” Jake and his avatar, is eager, bright-eyed, and wholesomely defiant, and Zoë Saldana’s warrior princess Neytiri is…well, eager, bright-eyed, and wholesomely defiant, and also sexy in an idealized anime way.
The movie, which sprawls on for two and a half hours, comes down to this: Jake trains to be a warrior; his commanders move in to mine the jungle, even if that means destroying the splendid Na’vi habitat; and Jake, having formed an alliance with his newly adopted tribe, goes native and helps to lead them in a war against the ruthless corporate invaders. There are obvious layers of allegory. The Pandora woods is a lot like the Amazon rainforest (the movie stops in its tracks for a heavy ecological speech or two), and the attempt to get the Na’vi to ”cooperate” carries overtones of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Except that in Avatar, it’s never completely clear what the consortium, led by a vicious military roughneck (Stephen Lang), hopes to gain through its diplomatic Avatar Program. It looks as if they were just planning to bulldoze the land anyway, and so Jake’s infiltration of the Na’vi is really an enormous red herring.
Cameron is such a skilled nuts-and-bolts filmmaker that the story he tells is never less than serviceable; it has none of the nattering clutter of one of the latter-day Star Wars films. But it’s never more than serviceable either. What it’s in the service of is the creation of a relentless ”Oh, wow!” acid-trip videogame joyride. The climactic battle sequence in Avatar is a stupendously orchestrated clash of color and movement, of machine-gun droids and Na’vi warriors flying their primitive griffin steeds down canyon walls. The sequence imprints itself onto your mind’s eye. As spectacle, Avatar is indelible — a true rush — but as a movie it all but evaporates as you watch it.