Director James Cameron set himself up to fail with Avatar, his first feature film since 1997’s Oscar-winning Titanic.
Cameron all but promised Avatar would reinvent the way we look at 3-D movies. And darn if he didn’t live up to his own hype.
Avatar is a thing of beauty, a 3-D movie of clarity and power. And, at a time when the special effects bar is raised with every new blockbuster, Cameron’s film sends that bar rising through the rafters.
So why did he retrofit his film with an immature Iraq war meme and, much worse, politically loaded dialogue that rips you right out of the movie time and time again?
The futuristic film stars Sam Worthington as Jake, a partially paralyzed Marine who agrees to go back onto the battlefield in order to glean information about the Na’Vi, a blue-skinned race living on the planet Pandora.
Their planet is loaded with a mineral called unobtainium that doubles as a energy source. The military — and its corporate tag team partners — need to retrieve the mineral because the Earth’s resources are depleted.
You’d think by the year 2154 we’d have solved those pesky green solutions like solar power, hydrogen cells, and wind-driven turbines.
But before you can say “no blood for unobtanium,” Jake starts to identify with the tall, elegant creatures who agree to teach him their culture for less than clear reasons. He’s particularly fond of Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana of Star Trek), a beautiful 10-foot-tall humanoid whose gruff exterior quickly melts away.
Suffice it to say, the creatures respect nature to a fault, going so far as to apologize after killing a creature for sustenance or survival. That probably means little to the slain creature, but it makes the Na’vi feel so much better.
Jake is a Marine on a mission, but after becoming enmeshed in the alien culture he starts to question the military’s plan for Pandora.
The film echoes the war in Vietnam when the military starts strafing innocent Na’vi from above, but the biggest ideological sights are set on this country’s adventures in the Middle East.
Phrases like “shock and awe” pour out of the actors’ mouths, instantly ripping us out of the story and back into the last op-ed column we’ve read.
Why a filmmaker as smart and gifted as Cameron would use reportedly $300 million to immerse us in a unique fantasy only to yank us out of it is a mystery for the ages.
Then again, in Hollywood, ideology too often trumps all.
What’s worse, Cameron’s Iraq war analogy is both crude and unfair. Setting up the peaceful, blue-hued creatures and their equally calm leaders as stand-ins for a brutal regime which invaded a neighboring country, shattered countless UN resolutions, and tortured its own people with alacrity is a cheap shot of the highest order.
And for those bothering to keep score, the U.S. isn’t taking oil out of Iraq.
It’s essentially telling us Cameron can’t really debate the Iraq war on its merits, so he has to stack the deck in his favor. He does it partially with dialogue that can’t be saved by any 3-D trickery.
We hear Marine leaders bark that they “will fight terror with terror” and talk of “preemptive” strikes. Meanwhile, Jake, regarding the human invasion, proclaims, “They cannot take whatever they want.”
Giovanni Ribisi, essentially portraying the Paul Reiser role from Cameron’s Aliens, plays the sleazy corporate type out to suck the resources from an innocent people.
And then there’s Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the man in charge of the military operation to steal the unobtainium out from under the Na’vi’s sacred land. Lang, muscles bulging along with a series of scars across his face, is a one-dimensional triumph of villainy.
Even those who disagree with the moral fundamentals behind Avatar can’t deny Cameron’s visual achievement. Avatar simply soars on a level we haven’t seen before. It’s a 3-D spectacle worth suffering with those Buddy Holly glasses, a monument to a filmmaker unwilling to wait for technology to catch up with his vision.
Avatar tells a complicated story but never loses the audience in a morass of pointless details. The action sequences are shot with a vibrancy that’s a refreshing change from those confusing battles in the Transformers franchise.
The 3-D elements help establish a sense of time and place that otherwise might not be possible.
The film should be a star-making platform for Worthington, but he doesn’t register as deeply as expected. Far better is Sigourney Weaver, popping off the screen without any 3-D razzle dazzle, even though her scientist character makes little sense.
Avatar is bold and ambitious, thrilling and deeply flawed, but it delivers on the spectacle Cameron promised. If only the director had a sober-minded collaborator who could have talked him out of his ideological excesses, Avatar might have trumped Titanic in the hearts and minds of the public.