I don’t know why it should come as a surprise to anyone that writer/director James Cameron should continue to own, or, as the kids today say, PWN, the science-fiction/fantasy genre in cinema. After all, he single-handedly rejuvenated said genre with pretty much zero money and plenty of imagination and filmic ingenuity with 1984’s The Terminator; made the Ultimate Sci-Fi Smash-Bang War Movie, Non Ironic Division, with 1986’s utterly awesome Aliens (the prize in Ironic Division goes to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which Aliens made possible anyway), screwed around with the Terminator character in ways that ought to have been utterly unconscionable, and probably were, and made a colossal entertainment out of the misbegotten enterprise Terminator 2 (1991) anyway, and then…stopped doing science-fiction/fantasy films, unfortunately. Yes, the Bond meets Austrian-Dubbed Father Knows Best hybrid True Lies (1994) did contain some spectacularly far-fetched set pieces that could have come out of an even more acid-damaged version of Nick Fury than Jim Steranko ever essayed, but its curdled humor made it a lot less fun than it might have been, And then there’s 1997’s Titanic, his last feature film and in a way as much of a fantasy as anything he’d ever done, and a massive cinematic spectacle, but…
But not what I want from a Cameron movie, precisely. (And I know I’ve left 1989’s The Abyss out of my Unified Cameron Field Theory, but what can I do?) What I really love about Cameron’s sci-fi work is that it baldly reveals that one of his key visual influences is comics pioneer Jack Kirby, he of the galactic concepts, massive double-truck panoramas, and the craziest kineticism that was ever contained within none-moving frames, that is, comic book panels. Watching the camera pans going over the desolate planet landscape filling up with defense machinery in Aliens was like looking at a trademark Kirby two-page post splash vision come to life. It wasn’t just the composition and the larger than life humans; it was the hypertrophied design of the weapons and the air, land, and sometimes sea craft. A crazy, violent universe, made all the more exhilarating and weird and funny in that both Kirby and Cameron use the violence of their vision to proselytize for...world peace?
Yeah, pretty much. So Cameron’s long awaited, much-second-guessed Avatar, a ridiculously expensive-to-produce, CGI-driven, 3-D epic, works best as an insanely expanded Kirby-esque cinematic spectacle. The comic-book analogy is in fact stronger than the video game one, and the video game one is the easiest to grab for by folks who don’t know their Kirby. But that’s life. Contrary to what a lot of people insisted on gleaning from the trailers, this isn’t just a story of resources-hungry earthlings attempting to rape a planet made up of a lot of wussy rain forests and populated by 12-foot-tall tree-hugging humanoids with blue skin and tails and organic USB ports/connectors. Because, among other things, the planet is also populated by ten truckloads of really cool creatures, inspired by sci-fi pics as diverse as The Valley of Gwangi, Mothra, The Killer Shrews, and more. (Yes, The Killer Shrews. Turns out killer shrews are better done via computer than by putting ratty fake fur over skinny dogs. Who knew?) These multi-colored marauders are, like the tree-huggers themselves (called the Na’vi) tied to the planet Pandora by means of a neural network whose nodes are the trees in which the humanoid tribes make their home. It is not entirely unexpected when the Na’vi “avatar” of disabled journeyman soldier Jake Sully (that he is only one consonant away from being the protagonist of De Palma’s Body Double really has to be a coincidence), sent to research and then pretty much sell out the Na’vi for Earth’s corporate mineral interests, finds himself attracted to the savage but wise people’s ways and beliefs. There are touches here recognizable from Dances With Wolves, and The Matrix as well. It is neither a stretch not an insult to say that there is very little original about Cameron’s plotting, but one should note that he commendably declines to rub your nose in its Joseph Campbell-isms. What is unusual about the picture is the ferocity with which Sully (a solid Sam Worthington) goes native. This is not a movie with a lot of sympathy for earth people, or rather, Americans, specifically Caucasian ones. Which we’ll get to a bit later, and is kind of funny when you think about it.
Cameron sets up all of his plot mechanisms (the perquisites of greed and power and trust and betrayal, essentially) and stock characters (gruff-but-lovable scientist, loathsome corporate scum, seemingly stand-up but essentially heartless and bigoted military man, etc.) with wonderful efficiency in the first 20 minutes or so, then lets loose with a series of magnificent visual set pieces that put the viewer in another world. One which the viewer may choose to believe in, or not. One might find the gawky grace and wide-open faces of the Na’vi unconvincing if one is so inclined. I found the creatures, a mix of live-action acting and motion-capture-guided CGI, rather ingratiating. What are finally undeniable, and breathtaking, are the varied action sequences, from the ritual of capturing the flying creature called the Ikran to the tragic but still awe-inspiring deforestation-by-human-explosives scenes, which kind of blow Apocalypse Now away. And isn’t it funny how so many putatively anti-war pictures have such kick-ass scenes of things blowing up, no? The fluid assuredness with which Cameron mixes mind-bending settings (a floating mountain range, for instance) with fast-moving but always cinematically coherent action…and then tops it off with 3-D effects that are rarely ostentatious but always enhance what’s going on; well, yes, all this combines into something that, as they say, you’ve never seen before.
The picture’s not perfect. Learning your visuals from Jack Kirby is one thing, but too often it sounds like Cameron learned to write dialogue from the guy too; Cameron’s occasional genius for the perfect dumb catchphrase notwithstanding, the talk here, as in his other pictures, is mostly leaden and on the nose. (Which may just mean that the occasional perfect dumb catchphrase is all you need.) I love Michelle Rodriguez as much as the next guy (maybe more), but honestly, why do filmmakers even bother giving her characters any name other than hers anymore? Here she plays, no, you’ll never guess, a foxy, hard-boiled chopper pilot. That’s not really a fault, actually.
“Don’t believe what you’ve heard,” a lot of people are saying about Avatar today, and we’ll be nice and not make too much of the attendant irony that many of the people saying that were actually responsible for what you’ve heard. This is a movie that is changing minds all over: “OSCAR BOUND,” Matt Drudge’s website is saying in all caps even as we speak. This despite the fact that it wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret the picture as a call for worldwide jihad, and its hero Jake Sully as a more competent, successful John Walker Lindh. Okay, I’m playing here. A bit. But man, those buzz phrases “shock and awe,” “fight terror with terror” and “preemptive war” didn’t come out of nowhere. We can discuss this further after you’ve seen the picture. Which you ought to.