by Tony Dayoub
Okay. It's not that Avatar should be ranked on any end-of-the-year "best" lists, to be sure. But I had such a fun time falling into James Cameron's fantasy, I can't deny how enjoyable it is. Is it a landmark achievement in filmmaking? I think so. But the problem lies in whether it will feel like such twenty years from now, when this technology will feel commonplace, or worse yet, outdated.
A former visual effects cinematographer, Cameron has a natural inclination towards spectacle. What I also give him credit for is using his vast wealth to fund the R & D for not just his own pet projects, but projects that will help the medium itself move forward . Avatar, its fairly evident, is just such a project. In one scene, where hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has gotten lost in the woods of planet Pandora, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), one of the warrior natives known as the Na'vi. The scene is one that immerses both the viewer and our proxy Jake in the engrossing environs of the Na'vi's planet. Its CGI world simultaneously feels artificial and alive. Everything from the flora to the fauna to the heroes that populate its world have an organic relation to each other, their sympathetic bioluminescence serving as the vehicle for this holistic harmony.
I saw the film in 3-D, and to see it any other way is to lose a crucial part of the story. The paraplegic Jake, a former marine, is tempted into taking part in an experimental exercise by the opportunity to experience the use of legs again after he transfers his persona into a human/Na'vi hybrid avatar. Cameron wisely uses restraint with the 3-D, generally avoiding the in-your-face shots of projectiles launched toward the screen, visuals that usually distract viewers from any reality the film is striving to achieve. Ironically, 3-D films have long felt like gimmicks in their attempt to reach a sort of visual realism. No, Cameron's use of the effect is nuanced, his camera skimming over and past and through the dense rainforest that envelops Pandora three-dimensionally. Cameron mitigates the artificiliaty of the effect by making Avatar's central characters blue-skinned aliens, creatures that look unnatural to begin with. He also transcend the gimmickry of the 3-D by making it essential to the story. As you experience the immersive quality of Cameron's 3-D artistry, you immediately identify with Jake who is experiencing his own sense of wonder with the new virtual world he finds himself in. Good thing, too, since Cameron's script isn't strong enough to get you to connect with the film's characters on that visceral level so necessary to make the film a true success.
Some have cited the problematic nature of the film's topicality, stating that their seems to be an obvious point Cameron is making with parallels to the Iraq War. While I do see several phrases like "shock and awe," or "fight terror with terror," designed to elicit some sort of reaction, I truly feel these phrases are there due to the Barnum-like Cameron's desire to drum up critical good will in the film—irresponsibly I may add—but nothing more. It is no secret that the American (?) military is given quite a black eye by their villainous depiction in this movie (particularly by the excellent Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch). But the film is so clearly derivative of a specific classic science-fiction novel which predates, and in fact somewhat predicts the War on Terror, that I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this elsewhere.
Frank Herbert's Dune, like Avatar, is an ecological science fiction novel. Published in 1965, it predicts much of the current Mid-East unrest and its ties to oil production (spice production in the novel) and the disregard for the sensitive ecology of the planet, themes that dominate the news today. Ignoring David Lynch's inferior adaptation of the film, Cameron uses the novel as a template for the story. From the outsider messianically sent to deliver an alien race from their human oppressors to the insurgent tactics of a clan-like people finally united against a common enemy; from the hero's acceptance into the alien community after he tames a powerful, mystically revered beast to the hero's introduction of an aural technology to help the resistance gain an advantage over their oppressors; even his schooling in the way of the natives by a beautiful female warrior that eventually becomes his wife; many of Avatar's story beats can be found in the original Herbert novel and with a higher level of complexity.
And it is for this reason that Avatar cannot reside in the pantheon of great films. Once technology catches up with the innovations presented here, just as it did with Lucas' Star Wars and Cameron's own Terminator 2 and The Abyss, what's left is a movie with a lot of flat dialogue and story points ripped off from superior sources. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't feel the same sense of exhiliration when I left the screening of Avatar as my 5-year-old self did when leaving the theater in 1977 after seeing Star Wars for the first time. But twenty years from now when I refer the next generation to Avatar as a landmark achievement in special effects, I expect to get much of the same reaction I do now when speaking of Star Wars, "What's the big deal?"