December, 2009, Thriller



Fifty-six year old writer/director James Cameron can arguably be described as the most commercially successful creator of movies in the history of the medium. For over 30 years, he’s been involved in the production of some of the most successful films Hollywood has ever produced, of which Titanic is the most outstanding example. But he’s also guided Arnold Schwarzenegger through a trio of box office hits (Terminators I & II, True Lies) and delivered highly successful science fiction thrillers like The Abyss & Aliens. His movies have always struck me as long on noisy action and short on character development, but his technical skills and rigorous attention to detail make his films pleasing to watch if not especially challenging to understand. He seems content to create a body typified by Marshall McLuhan’s observation that popular media “exists to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values”. Those who see Avatar won’t discover new depths to Cameron’s talents as thinker, but make no mistake about it; with this film, he’s created an entirely new movie-going experience and the medium will inevitably change as a result of it.


Avatar’s action takes place on Pandora, a distant planet which possesses mineral deposits vital to the continuation of life on earth. Its riches are being mined by a corporation which has encountered great resistance from the Na’vi, Pandora’s native, humanoid population. 12 feet tall and possessed of considerable physical prowess, the Na’vi live a pastoral life as hunter gatherers and refuse to relocate their principal village which sits atop a rich vein of the mineral that earthlings so badly need for their survival.


The mining company has discovered how to artificially create Na’vi bodies; it then employ humans to enter specially designed chambers which allow them to animate the clones via a technique which bears more than a passing resemblance to today’s “virtual reality” games. Jake Sully, (Sam Worthington) an ex-Marine who has lost the use of his legs, agrees to travel to Pandora and virtually inhabit one of the corporation’s clones in an effort to understand the Na’vi and thus manipulate their opposition to further attacks on Pandora’s pristine environment. But after prolonged exposure to the Na’vi, Sully “goes native”, switching sides to defend these peaceful natives against the “civilized” humans bent on destroying the Na’vi way of life.


You don’t have to stay through Avatar’s full 2 hour and 42 minute running time to grasp Cameron’s accomplishment; once the realistic creation of the mining company’s futuristic base on Pandora has been established and Sully animates his Na’vi clone, the audience enters a world of such astounding visual creativity it’s simply impossible not to be dazzled by the what Cameron has fashioned. The flora, fauna and geology of Pandora, (not to mention the Na’vi themselves, with translucent epidermis, tattoo-like skin decorations patterns and eyes the size of billiard balls) are detailed so minutely one can be forgiven for surrendering completely to Cameron’s vision. From lush, exotic plant life to the delicate floating creatures which function as harbingers of things to come to the giant flying birds which allow the Na’vi ride to small “islands” suspended far above their planet, Avatar’s mise en scene is so thoroughly realized it sets a new standard for movie- making.


That said, even a competent cast comprised of polished veterans like Sigourney Weaver, Stephan Land and Giovanni Ribisi can’t sustain Cameron’s over-obvious plot and clunky dialogue; having dazzled his audience with an alternative reality of remarkable quality, the director employs a storyline reminiscent of every western detailing the destruction of indigenous American Indian cultures and sci-fi flick revolving around the perils of human encounters with alien creatures. By the time the screen is filled with giant bulldozers and helicopter gunships, Avatar has gone predictably obvious. But don’t let the pedestrian second half of this brilliant movie dissuade you from experiencing the fantasy world so alluringly created in its first hour or so; Cameron has created a fairy tale for adults and I defy you not to be seduced by Avatar’s gorgeous creativity. This year’s District 9 provides thoughtful science fiction; Avatar supplies glorious images of it.


The Verdict? Buy your ticket, get some popcorn and for at least the first 60 to 90 minutes, be transported by the movie’s visual magic.         

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