Just to see what all the fuss is about, I saw ‘Avatar’ in 3D. I enjoyed it. I do have issues with it; it can be discussed and demolished politically, theoretically, artistically, but I enjoyed it. I can live without this 3D stuff inducing nausea with swooping creatures heading downhill from a mountaintop, and really dislike people saying it’s here to stay as if it’s needed. Just tell me a story.
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m operating under the belief that applying scientific advances to one set of goals will lead to accidental discoveries unlooked for, unhoped for in another area entirely. Otherwise the billions of dollars spent on this film cannot be justified.
The film starts as science fiction: That is, scientific advances and societal developments set up the premise of the story. The ‘avatars’ we set for ourselves on the Wii live merely in the virtual world; “Avatar” believes in comingling biology and information technology so as to allow avatars to be grown in reality and then inhabited by a transferred consciousness. Terrans, a.k.a. Americans, can actually grow a new being who is like the big blue people (elongated humanoid forms with waists so tiny their rib cages could not hold requisite organs. You know, like models, only more so. And blue.) living in this world that the military industrial complex wishes to conquer. The manufactured beings, avatars, do not have brains or souls. They require a wireless computer system transmitting instructions to the bodies from a human being (who presumably has a brain and a soul) within a scanner container that resembles a coffin.
Now that’s all well and good for the good guy scientists who only wish to expand their knowledge and understanding of this world, "Pandora." The bad guys in this movie are the military. This is all very easy to spot right off the bat.
The MacGuffin is a rock that floats, and the highest concentration of this rock is, of course, deep in the planet under the “Hometree” – the center of the Pandorans (called Na’vi) culture. Until, of course, the last quarter of the film when suddenly there are a lot more of the “People” from different places, nowhere near the “Hometree.” Hmmm. Sort of like Cain’s wife, apparently created in another county by another god. Unless, of course, it was an incestuous marriage. But that’s quite beside the point. Back to the MacGuffin, the floating rock much prized by corporate America as represented by a humorless Giovanni Ribisi. Much could be done with the floating rock. It isn't.
Think back to when James Cameron still cared about story, and some bells will ring. The military industrial complex of “Aliens” (sometimes known as Alien2) in which the vested interest of “The Company” was represented by the wonderful weasley Paul Reiser. If you're going to write a script with practically the same character performing the same function in the film, at least give Giovanni some fun stuff to do. Speaking of “Aliens,” remember Al Matthews as Sergeant Apone. Somebody was channeling him, his voice, and his dialogue in parts of “Avatar,” too.
So, Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, this poor Marine with a spinal injury and atrophying legs, who also loses his scientist brother. Sharing enough DNA, the Marine brother takes his scientist brother’s place and avatar in this very expensive project off-world. All this is fine and fun. Big Blue (that is, Jake Sully) learning to control his Avatar with his semi-conscious mind, leads us to the beautiful new world envisioned by Cameron and his many, many colleagues in production design and art direction. Great stuff. In this world, the people, the animals, the plants are all connected, sharing borrowed energy and eventually giving it back to the planet in death. Sounds like native Americans, doesn’t it. This is all lovely and could, if Cameron still cared about story, have provided a tool, a weapon, for the Na’vi people against the U.S. military. But fantasy is more expedient and provided more opportunity for explosions and ever more killing machines. Taking the more interesting route would have required thought and time directed toward issues having nothing to do with special effects, so “Avatar” departs the realm of science fiction and becomes fantasy. And that’s a shame.
The technology is quite amazing. From Peter Max painting over photography back in the Sixties, all the way to wiring actors so the computer can recreate them, their movements, their expressions, all of them, as a new species -- it’s marvelous really. Great stuff, without a doubt.
Zoe Saldana is clearly Zoe Saldana and terrific as Neytiri, who is essentially the Princess of the people, with a mother as spiritual leader and father the chief. Sigourney Weaver’s avatar would not pass for one of the Na’vi, but was witty, as was the fact of Weaver being cast as a scientist in the film – Ellen Ripley would probably not have liked her.
Stephen Lang is brilliantly over the top as the head honcho of the base who of course overrides the scientists and the corporate types. Back in 1951, the film “The Thing From Another World” showed us those scientists and military types clashing, and weren’t we all glad the military types led by Kenneth Tobey overrode the naïve scientists. Well, scientists had recently split the atom, and the military joes commented, “And didn’t that make the world happy.” Times change. “Avatar” takes place in 2154, and the good guys and bad guys are tougher to tell apart each generation.
A major problem with this story is that despite setting up certain scientific elements (biology and geology both), Cameron doesn’t follow up on these. He doesn’t think about the ways in which the natural world might believably (in science fiction mode) fight back against the technology of the invaders. Instead, those blue people that the U.S. military intends to conquer somehow, with bows and arrows and spears and just plain heart, somehow the Na’vi beat the machine and banish the interlopers from their world.
So it’s fun. It is not the best picture of the year, the script has too many breakdowns. When James Cameron puts as much thought into the story as the technology, when he stops rehashing his own stories and reversing even older stories that we watched as children, maybe then he’ll make a movie that stands on its own without 3D, without new technology. Just good old fashioned story telling. I look forward to that.
~ Molly Matera, signing off. It's time to watch the Oscars.