Once in a cinematic blue moon (or, in this case, two or three blue moons) there’s so much simultaneous brilliance going on second by second that trying to note this-or-that falls pathetically short.
Such is the case here.
James Cameron’s “Avatar, a story of an attempted and, mercifully foiled attempt to usurp, bastardize, and rape an edenic aboriginal albeit other-planet culture, is made for the big screen; the bigger, the better. Only netflix it if you want Cameron’s commentary or documentaries on the special effects. Otherwise go out and help defray it’s reported $300 million production cost: it’s money well spent.
The film is set in 2154 (which simply means our foibles are just more technologically advanced), on the planet Pandora, peopled with the Na'vi who worship a nature goddess, Eywa. A corporation led by Parker Selfridge (Giovani Ribisi) intends to mine Unobtanium, a mineral that back on Earth goes for $20 million a kilo. To do so he has utilize malicious mercenaries to relocate (read: exterminate) this indigenous culture under whose sacred Tree of Life the mineral resides.
To gather intelligence for the attack, the corporation has created avatars (three-dimensional alter egos) that allow the gringos to remote control bodies with the attributes of the native population.
One avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), goes in to persuade them to leave, to convert them to a terrestrial way of life, and thus give up their mineral rights. Sound familiar? Think of Father Serra and his band of God-fearing monks converting California’s native culture to Christianity. Think too of the Trail of Tears when Native American populations were chased across the southwestern United States. What happens when this avatar bonds, in many more ways than one, with the tree people describes the arc of the story and it’s as heroic, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring and dastardly as anything you’ll ever see.
Cameron’s direction is well-paced, integrates unimaginable special effects without missing a narrative beat, and will hold you spellbound and enthralled for the entire two hours and forty minutes.
Talk about enchanted evenings: Cameron has created a celluloid magic kingdom populated with an exquisite tonal palette that matches the gamut of emotions the film evokes. The indigenous population looks like someone in the Blue Man Group mated with a zebra and had kids with the physiques of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
The animals are too-cool: hammerhead rhinos, phosphorescent dandelion jellyfish insects, supersonic crayola dragonflies, shadow jackals, and rainbow trout-like transport birds that look like the now-discontinued Concorde. Floral and fauna are sensuous and alive (they should be: in this religion, all things are interrelated and synergistic). They glow an iridescent green when touched or step on. And the amazing thing is, all these things are a given. They’re not foregrounded as in “hey, look at what I can do” but simply create the prelapsarian atmosphere in which the story plays out.
In a cavalcade of stand out and memorable scenes, a few are truly remarkable: Sully’s initiation into tribal manhood; his first flight on a Mach 3 peacock pterodactyl; his first kiss with clan princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana); and a riveting and protracted fight scene that manage to out-animate Pixar.
The cast is more than effective; each can breathe life into these well-drawn three-dimensional characters without unbalancing the film’s Us versus Them dynamic.
The role of avatar Jake Sully is given believable resonance by Worthington; he can go in as an imperialistic capitalistic yahoo and go out as one of them. His chemistry with Saldana’s Neytiri is to die for. He almost did, in fact. As a lover of all living things, a celebrant of the planet's ubiquitous life force, Saldana’s movement is liquid and her grace is fluid. Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang) is an hard-to-like scoundrel, a mercenary whose bluster and braggadocio takes you back to “Apocalypse Now”. One of his warships, in fact, is called Valkyrie.
Nothing is missed in this story of ethnography, spirituality, capitalism, imperialism, technology, psychology and love. Dramatically, character, conflict, resolution, and ambiance cohere; narrative-wise, form and subject connect, as it is with the tree people in 2154 and as it should be with us back on Earth in 2009.