Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of k-ideas.
All questions of whether James Cameron’s Avatar is a good movie aside (though I’ll get to them in a moment), it’s undeniably an incredibly important one. It’s simply the most technically impressive thing I’ve ever seen on a screen (and it’s a must-see in 3-D). The motion-capture works, something that other than Peter Jackson’s Gollum, I don’t think I’ve ever said about a single other movie, and it works here on a vaster scale than anything Jackson contemplated. When the main characters are in their avatar bodies, they’re both very much themselves and very much other. The sight of Sigourney Weaver as an extremely tall, hippiesque, blue anthropologist made me very, very happy. The biology of Pandora is a complete, convincing vision. Cameron was smart enough to make a lot of the animals fairly ugly, which actually makes them seem more realistic. When you think about a rhinoceros, it looks weird and a bit baggy — it makes sense that its biological counterpart would look kind of awkward, too. If there’s a flaw in the movie, it’s that Cameron relies a bit too heavily on bioluminescence. It’s certainly pretty when trees and plants light up on contact, but those touches are really the only things that make the movie look less than fully realistic. But it’s a flaw in the directorial and production decision-making, rather than the technology itself.
I was too young to feel this way when Titantic came out (and too surrounded by weeping girlfriends to notice the three times I saw it in theaters — give me an advance break, I was 13), but walking out of Avatar, I was overwhelmed by the extent to which the movie is a beginning of a new era in filmmaking, not simply the end of an old one. This hugely ambitious technology is just going to get better. Directors are just going to keep finding better ways to use it. As completely astonishing as Avatar looks, it’s simply a first draft and a first attempt.
Which is probably a good thing, given how absurdly cheesy it is (and sometimes-commenter here and Lawyers, Guns & Money blogger SEK has thoughts on the movie’s racial politics that are fascinating and trenchant, even if I’m not sure I entirely agree with them, here). There was a lot I liked about the movie: watching Sigourney Weaver chew scenery is always delightful, especially when she’s demonstrating that you don’t have to be a military mercenary to cause someone a lot of trouble; I’ve loved Joel David Moore’s turn as a dour forensic anthropologist on Bones, and so I enjoyed seeing him getting a strong supporting role; Michelle Rodriguez is adorable, competent, and tough — I’d really like to see her continue to come back from being a drunken mess in bad movies, and hope Avatar will help her to do that; and I love me some CCH Pounder. As for my concerns about the movie’s take on disability (SPOILER ALERT), I think I’m ultimately okay with how Cameron addressed it: the movie’s very upfront about the joys of mobility and sensation. The most romantic scene in the entire film comes when Neytiri, the Na’Vi princess played by Zoe Saldana, finds the human — and crippled — body of the man she’s come to love in his avatar form, saves his life, and calls him “mine” for the first time in the movie. And when Jake permanently moves from his human body to his avatar one at the end of the film, the action comes as a form of radical cultural identification as much as an act of escape. (SPOILER ALERT OVER.)
But in the end, the analogies are kind of glaringly heavy-handed. The hippie-chanting-in-the-forest-and-communing-with-nature stuff came across as a bit more embarrassing than profound. Sam Worthington’s kind of a blank slate, even if he’s a blank slate with very nice eyes. The dialogue frequently lands with the thud of rocks in a wet canvas bag. But the power of the movie’s visuals is such that it doesn’t entirely matter. For the long stretches of the film where you’re just figuring out the world, Avatar is glorious. And it’s a herald of such good things to come.