Sunday, December 27, 2009

The king of the world shows us a magnificent new one in Avatar

Perhaps the most breathtaking moment in James Cameron's Avatar – a movie that takes the breath from its awestruck audience with startling regularity – occurs roughly 45 minutes into the film. It introduces us to Neytiri, a blue-skinned warrior with amber-gold eyes and a supple 12-foot frame. Perched gracefully on a tree branch, Neytiri has spotted an intruder (who happens to be Jake Sully, our story's hero), and she moves silently to eliminate the threat. Pulling her bowstring taut, she is poised to strike when, suddenly, something catches her eye: a wispy, jellyfish-like organism, floating delicately in midair. The ethereal life form drifts toward Neytiri, eventually settling on the tip of her arrowhead. Neytiri, for reasons unknown to us at the time, takes this as an admonition of her combative instinct; she lowers her bow, and Jake Sully is allowed to live a little longer.

This is a beautiful scene. It takes place in complete silence (with the exception of James Horner's soft, reverent score), yet it constitutes a moment of both exquisite suspense (what will happen?) and slack-jawed wonder (just what are these creatures?), plus it effectively advances the movie's story. But the scene is particularly noteworthy because it is possible – indeed probable – that none of what we see was ever actually filmed, instead constructed within the confines of a computer. (I use the word "confines" loosely, as Avatar suggests that any alleged boundaries of computer-assisted filmmaking may in fact be illusory.) Yet watching the scene unfold, I never for a moment questioned the authenticity of Neytiri, the tree branch, or the wispy creature. I was simply transfixed on what was happening, wondering who this Amazonian was and why she suddenly refused to kill.

This is the genius of James Cameron. As cinematic technology restlessly evolves, moviemakers are gleefully delving into their new box of high-priced toys, anxious to commit their imagination to celluloid in ways not dreamed possible as recently as a decade ago. Yet this creative zeal frequently results in artistic overreaching. Michael Bay's colossal robots in the Transformers franchise doubtless represent impressive achievement, but they also loudly announce themselves as computer-generated contraptions. Watching them smash each other to bits, we know that they're binary creations, and this knowledge necessarily widens the gap between the viewer and the screen – special effects are a lot less special when they're clearly effects. The magic of the movies is that they can take us to new worlds and places, yet many directors are so excited to show us what they can do that they often forget to bring us along.

Cameron remembers why he's here. Avatar, with its gargantuan budget and heedless ambition, deigns to show us a world – called Pandora – that is in no way real. It has a toxic atmosphere. It is populated by giant blue forest-people, winged beasts called banshees, Triceratops-like herbivores, and countless other wholly fictional creatures. It houses a mineral called unobtanium (worth $20 million per kilo), not to mention millions of trees that are chemically interconnected to form a global network. It is a world that could only exist within someone's imagination. But Cameron's grasp of technology is so masterful, and his understanding of the moviegoing experience so acute, that he somehow makes it all real. When you watch Avatar – when you see Pandora, with its vibrant colorscape, lush vegetation, floating mountains, and oh-so-much more – you aren't a distant observer sitting in a theatre, looking up at a screen. You're there.

But Cameron also remembers why we're there: to behold a story. For all its wondrous modern advancements, cinema's primary purpose remains that of storytelling; filmmaking technique, no matter how spectacular, exists not for its own merit but to serve that purpose. And the story in Avatar is pretty darn good. The plot – in which the human Jake (played sturdily by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic, inhabits an alien body and gradually assimilates into the native population – certainly has plenty of narrative meat on its computer-enhanced bones. Cameron's script (hey, he writes too!) gives us a complex, three-dimensional protagonist; a stirring tale of redemption and self-discovery; a convincing, genuinely moving cross-cultural love story; a larger-than-life villain (a superb, scenery-chewing Stephen Lang); plenty of gripping adventure; and a healthy dosage of proselytizing.

That last element is one of Avatar's clunkier features. Cameron advances twin political themes of anti-imperialism and pro-environmentalism (I don't suppose anyone has ever promoted anti-environmentalism, but never mind), and his lobbying lacks the nuance and texture so characteristic of most of his filmmaking. But while such directness might have lent itself to sermonizing, Avatar's pace is so swift and its action so invigorating that it is utterly incapable of entangling itself in clumsy allegory. As a result, the politics complement the movie rather than stultify it.

It is also hardly the first action film with a political agenda, and in fact this is just one of its facets marking it as an old-fashioned epic. Make no mistake, Avatar is a landmark cinematic achievement – it truly is nothing we've ever seen before – but it is also cheerfully derivative. Jake's saga of absorption into a foreign enemy culture gently echoes that of Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves, while the concept of jacking into an engineered body instantly recalls The Matrix. As the muscle-bound, no-frills colonel, Stephen Lang provides a more lethal incarnation of Robert Duvall's napalm-sniffing jingoist of Apocalypse Now, and the slowly gestating romance between Jake and Neytiri imitates the courtship in Last of the Mohicans, only with the genders reversed. Cameron even pilfers from himself (why not borrow from the best?): Soldiers encase themselves within hulking mechanical monsters and control their movements from within – a touch unmistakably reminiscent of the climactic fight sequence in Aliens – and there's even an homage to True Lies where a character finds himself clinging to a helicopter via a missile.

So we've seen much of this before. But originality is not a prerequisite of art, and just because various strands of Avatar recall those of other pictures should in no way mitigate the seminal, game-changing impact of this film. Significantly, the one movie it evokes more than any other in terms of sheer bravura is Star Wars (the game-changer of yesteryear), and what separates Avatar – what grants it its everpresent aura of astonishment – is its wondrous sense of majesty. We live in an era in which many directors can rightly declare themselves expert craftsmen, but Cameron matches that craftsmanship with a vision so bold that his film ascends to a singular, mythic grandeur. Pandora is a beautifully realized world, impeccably detailed and – more importantly – entirely new.

Cameron's crowning triumph is undoubtedly his creation of the Na'vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora's verdant forests, built via motion-capture technology of the how-the-fuck-do-they-do-that? variety. Until now, the multiplex's definitive motion-capture denizen was Gollum, the sinewy, shadowy spectre of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Well, imagine an entire tribe of Gollums, each with their individual physiques and facial expressions, all seamlessly camouflaged into the larger environment. That seamlessness is the key, as it allows us to appreciate the locals' strange beauty rather than distracting us with any obvious signs of architectural manipulation. Cameron's command of technology is so sure-handed that when we see that Na'vi, we aren't looking at digitized designs that were rendered in a lab – we're looking at people.

Not that this exquisite level of detail is unique to the Na'vi. Cameron shows us dozens of fascinating creatures that inhabit Pandora, and each is magnificent in its own weird way. His terrestrials come in all shapes, sizes, and most of all colors, and Avatar's first major action set piece is an exhilarating, hyper-kinetic mad-dash in which Jake flees from a savage purple-tinged monster that seems to be a hybrid of a tyrannosaur and a walrus. (In yet another analogue, this scene recalls the pièce de résistance of Peter Jackson's King Kong). Not to be outdone is Pandora's winged population – Cameron has a keen reverence for the thrill of flight – spearheaded by a flaming-orange dragon-like beast called Toruk. Compared to him, the aforementioned banshees are lesser in stature but not in snarl, and the scene in which Jake attempts to bend a banshee to his will is yet another coup. Even the forest itself is a breathing, bioluminescent organism, radiating life from every plant, pond, and hollow. Everything coalesces in the movie's final battle sequence, a tour de force of technological filmmaking in which hundreds of winged creatures both animal and mechanical patrol the skies, each with a clear sense of space and dimension.

About that dimension, you may have heard that Avatar features one more than usual – that is, it takes place in 3-D. Now, I've been railing against 3-D in movies for years, my major complaint being that the technique is entirely gimmicky. Up till now, the primary intention of 3-D has been to startle audiences, typically through a pantomime in which objects are catapulted out from the screen and into the auditorium. (Case in point: The trailer for Piranha 3-D that played prior to Avatar concluded with a panicked gentleman swinging a chainsaw, almost as though he were trying to decapitate the unfortunate souls sitting in the theatre's front row.) That's fine for nine-year-olds watching the Muppets in Disney World, but when watching an actual movie, it operates only as a particularly onerous distraction. The best movies make us forget we're sitting in a theatre – they draw us in. Most 3-D films, so intent on bringing us closer to the action, paradoxically rob us of that crucial illusion of proximity; the gotcha-style trickery is so jolting that it actively removes us from the events on-screen.

But Cameron defies expectations yet again. The 3-D in Avatar, like the rest of the devices in Cameron's toolbox, serves to enhance the experience rather than detract from it. He doesn't send any poisoned arrows flying in our direction. Instead, he gently expands his canvas, building the frame outward, gradually pulling us into it. Consider the first time we see Jake: He's lying down, looking out at us, and his eyes focus on two tiny bubbles that suddenly combine to form a larger sphere. It's a seemingly insignificant moment, but the 3-D gives us a stronger sense of Jake's perspective. The technique itself barely registers, and that's a good thing – it quietly but insistently immerses us into this new world.

Later, when Jake first encounters the humans' main base on Pandora, the 3-D provides Cameron with extraordinary depth of field, as a towering bulldozer-like vehicle prowls in front of Jake, while a soldier in one of those mechanized suits of armor stalks past him in the background. Watching, we aren't distracted by any 3-D gimmicks. Instead we notice the feathered arrows jutting out from the wheels of the bulldozer; these signify attacks from the hostile Na'vi, and just like that, Cameron has used technology to better tell his story. Avatar would certainly be a worthwhile experience in standard 2-D, but the immersion that Cameron achieves with 3-D is remarkable.

(Given Avatar's commercial and critical success, the industry's current attitude toward 3-D – already one of tentative embrace – will likely transform into an all-out swoon. Whether this is a good thing is another matter. If every filmmaker can utilize the technology with the restraint and respect that Cameron employs in Avatar, then I'm all for it. But every filmmaker is not James Cameron, and I fear directors will soon be hurling objects out from the screen with abandon, making us all bob and weave and cower in our seats. We shall see.)

Interestingly, while the Star Wars saga serves as the proper point of comparison for Avatar in terms of its staggering cinematic innovation, Cameron's film holds a marked advantage over George Lucas' pictures in one important respect: the acting. I remain an ardent supporter of the Star Wars prequels – Revenge of the Sith in particular is a heroic fusion of technological bombast and space-opera mythology – but even I will concede that the acting at times borders on wooden, largely the fault of Lucas' halting dialogue. Cameron isn't a great dialogue writer either, but his actors nevertheless have a natural feel for this material. Sam Worthington slides comfortably into the role of everyman who accidentally finds himself as messiah (a throwback to Michael Biehn's gritty freedom-fighter in The Terminator). Zoë Saldana appears only via motion-capture, but there's still real acting going on here, with Neytiri emanating equal parts toughness and tenderness – during a late emotional scene, the love behind those amber eyes is palpable.

The supporting cast is no less capable, and a good deal more fun. Sigourney Weaver gives her most relaxed performance in years as Jake's superior (both officially and intellectually), while Michelle Rodriguez lends her natural feistiness to her role as a cocksure fighter pilot (yet another tough-as-nails Cameron femme). On the testosterone side, Giovanni Ribisi is appropriately wry and pragmatic as a semi-soulless bureaucrat, though when he isn't braying laughter, he permits his character a glimmer of self-doubt. But there's no doubt whatsoever in Stephen Lang's ferocious portrayal of the hard-bitten colonel, a behemoth of a man whose gruff charm slowly gives way to ravenous bloodlust. Cameron may be superhuman, but he's hardly working alone.

But make no mistake: He's the true star. A dozen years ago, after Titanic captured 11 Oscars and the all-time box-office crown (not to mention a heap of undeserved residual scorn), James Cameron declared himself "King of the World"; now he's prophesied that Avatar will change the face of movies forever. He may be an egotistical prick, but that doesn't make him wrong. Watching Avatar – experiencing life on Pandora – I recalled a pivotal exchange in The Matrix, when Carrie-Anne Moss chastises Joe Pantoliano for championing the illusion-based universe of the movie's title, even though it isn't real. He responds coolly, "I think the Matrix can be more real than this world".

Pandora isn't real, I know, yet I feel as though I've visited it anyway. And I can't wait to go back.


Joshua said...

did you cry like when Wall-E ended?

Jeremy said...

Strangely, no. But I did nearly pass out when Jake pulled a tuck-and-roll on the giant flying warship and leapt onto the dragon. I'd say more, but it's already in the freaking trailer anyway.

Travis said...

Good post Beck... the only reason I got through it was cause I'm on vacation.

One question... have you seen Fern Gully? And if so, why didn't you mention the obvious parallels between the two plots?

Jeremy said...

I actually did think of the Ferngully parallels at one point, though I (inexcusably?) failed to mention them in the post. It's been awhile since I've seen it -- the only thing I really remember is Robin Williams voicing an insane bat -- but it certainly had the nature vs. corporate angle. Good call.

anju 2016 said...

I actually did think of the Ferngully parallels at one point, though I (inexcusably?) failed to mention them in the post. It's been awhile since I've seen it -- the only thing I really remember is Robin Williams voicing an insane bat -- but it certainly had the nature vs. corporate angle. Good call.

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