James Cameron’s AVATAR is a bold and imaginative vision brought low by a script that plays it very, very safe. Timely and environmentally apt, the rich creativity that is evident in the imagining of Pandora, the planet that is Earth’s last, best hope for survival, is juxtaposed with stock characters from Cameron’s playbook, including the corporate bean counter (Giovanni Ribisi) and the military commander (Stephen Lang) who is the acme of imperialism and scenery-chewing annoyance when crossed.
The corporation is seeking a substance cleverly named unobtainium, the which is worth more than all the gold, silver, and platinum in the universe. The biggest deposit found of this amazing substance is Pandora, specifically right beneath a village of the locals. Thes locals are 10 feet tall (low gravity spawns great height it seems), blue, tail-sporting, forest-dwelling, and prone to shooting poison-tipped arrows at the Earthlings. To overcome this, and the poisonous atmosphere, a series of avatars were developed, a hybrid of the locals and one specific human who, when linked via a special neural-hookup, can control the hybrid as it interacts in real time in the wild, the way a computer avatar interacts in a virtual world. Until now, it’s only been military and scientists, but a sad twist of fate brings paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to Pandora. His VA benefits won’t pay for the operation that would restore his mobility, so he signs up for six years on the most hostile place to which humans have yet ventured, controlling an avatar that he’s had no training with, to run a amok on a world that he knows nothing about, and working for a botanist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who has no patience with him. It’s a matter of saving money for the company, but the planet, after a rough introduction, takes a peculiar shine to him in the form of an omen. As for Jake, he takes a shine to the Pandoran warrior princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who is tasked with training his avatar to become enlightened. That would be enlightenment from the tribe’s strand point.
What ensues is the classic tale of the conqueror finding that the locals are superior to his own culture and going native, in this case more literally than usual. The superiority isn’t just that they are in tune with nature and live lightly on the land, but that they are spiritually plugged in, also literally, to the planet. It’s a fact that Augustine has pieced together and attempts to sell to the company as being much more valuable than a mineral, but with, of course, no success. The correspondences with the clearing of the rain forest back here on Earth are anything but coincidental.
The reason to see AVATAR, and it is eminently worth seeing, is for the special effects that are only a hairsbreadth from miraculous. Using the same capture-motion by WETA that was used for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with a greater state-of-the-art, it brings the Pandorans to life in a way that is close to perfect, even when interacting with non-virtual actors. The expressions, the skin texture, body language are spot on, with only a few faux pas moments that may or may not be accounted for by the lower gravity on Pandora. It makes the performances by Worthington and Weaver, human or Pandoran, equally compelling, though Weaver sets the bar high with her first appearance, emerging from the neuro-net pod with an imperious demand for her cigarette and then coolly dispatching any of Jake’s hopes that this assignment will run smoothly. It also allows those who appear only as Pandorans to effectively emote, despite a slightly altered physiognomy. Expressions of scorn, delight, and sadness are here demonstrated to be universal.
Pandora itself is a delightful petri dish of alternative evolution, with bio-luminescence in neon colors, and creatures that fill the same evolutionary niches that Earth provides, but in novel ways. Here there be dragons. Here there be six-legged horses who sip nectar. Here there be large armored beasties with pop-up frills and a skin so thick that machine guns only tick them off. Here there be mountains that float.
The spiritual message of AVATAR, symbolized by the sacred tree of souls to dear to the Pandorans heart, is itself brought low by a troubling subtext. While eschewing the trappings of imperialism, cultural and economic, on the surface, there is no getting around that the savior of this indigenous people, is the white guy from above who is, for some reason, chosen by the planet to be its avatar, in the other sense of the word. Sure, Jake is pure of heart, and, sure, he gets that theirs is the superior culture, but it’s a culture that is helpless without him. It takes someone from the evil culture to save them. That and the syrupy love ballad that rolls over the end credits both leave a bad taste with which to leave the theater.