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|Cinema Signal: Go! A must-see sci-fi adventure.|
Vol. 2 (2009)
With "Avatar," James Cameron--a filmmaker who hardly ever makes a movie without employing state-of-the-art technology to create something we've never seen before (see "The Abyss")--futurizes Terence Malick's "The New World" in his rather titanic way. For this, he created a language, a remote tribe, their culture and mythology, and a mercenary army to ruin their peace. It should be added that, true to his own culture as an uncompromising envelope-pusher in cinematic lore, he devoted years to the advancement in motion capture techniques that helped make sweeping feats of action, destruction, beauty and imagination possible. If it was his intention to best Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") and a smidgen of Terry Gilliam, he has pulled it off with a showman's panache.
The only risk involved here, besides the one borne by his investors, is the portrayal of a military unit as devoid of humanity, villainous and sociopathic destroyers of things environmental. The hero of the piece is an ex-marine who betrays his allegience to this remnant of the corps when he discovers the madness of his superiors. In a world in which humanity or, at least, the American part of it, is represented only by a corporate entity and its own scientists, ungoverned by laws, politicians or parties, it serves as a microcosm of a larger picture--an avatar of pervasive selfishness, if you will.
In this future, ecological disaster has grown imminent on Earth, well beyond the controversies of 2009. But, then, so has technology. Scientific researcher Grace Augustine (nicely energized Sigourney Weaver), created the Avatar Program and leads a team working in the laboratory of a large corporation that appears to exist independently of governmentmental oversight. With their funding, the team has discovered other worlds with life and the means to visit them.
On the Earth-sized moon of Polyphemus, Pandora, resides a tribe of hybrid beings with human DNA. These people--nine feet tall, with tails, carbon fiber bones and bioluminescent blue skin have super-human strength and move gracefully. Called the Na'vi, their existence is spiritually tied to a giant Banyon-like tree that is at once a protector and life-force. Over its roots they live in communal peacefulness concerned with local threats, like the myriad predator creatures that roam their forest.
Grace's research team has developed a method of genetic engineering to "project" a human to Pandora from a coffin-like box equipped with specialized transfer circuitry. The process puts the human into a coma-like state while the subject watches his or her "avatar" out on Pandora.
The corporation's interest in Pandora stems from the discovery that the sacred tree grows over a vast mineral resource called Unobtainium (which sounds like a temporary name that never got improved upon), which contains properties that can save Earth from ecological disintegration. Initial mining operations have begun, but visitors from Earth associated with the project have not gone down well with the Na'vi, their behavior and assumptions repugnant to the natives and causing their expulsion.
One exception is Grace, who has become a beloved figure for her teachings and is always welcome. As the story begins, it's thought that one of the researchers may be better prepared to convince the Na'vi to move off their sacred home ground--under threat of military force.
The mercenary military force takes its marching orders from chief corporate officer Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). And, when the research-designate is killed, his twin brother--former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)--is pressed into service for the task despite his paralysis below the waist due to a wartime injury. His avatar will have no such limitation, and Jake becomes Col. Miles Quaritch's (steely Stephen Lang) eyes, ears and alter ego. He gladly accepts the mission to gather intel for a potential invasion with an overpowering fleet of 2154 weaponry should the tribe refuse to accept their destiny.
Jake's avatar visit, however, is sidetracked by unknown and unforeseen factors, not the least of which is the emotional. From the moment he meets Neytiri (luminous Zoe Saldana), a new and unexpected factor sets in. After Jake saves himself from becoming the meal of a huge, nasty Thanator by jumping off a waterfall, Neytiri saves him from attack by a pack of ravaging nantangs. It turns out that she's not only a highly skilled warrior, but also the daughter of the tribal leader. She's not much taken by Jake's rash impulsiveness.
But, though her intention was to ferry him back where he came from before he can do harm to others, her impression is forced to change when Jake is suddenly covered in a flurry of airborne jellyfish-like pods of luminescent seeds. Neytiri can scarcely believe her eyes (and they are large, beautiful eyes). The seeds are from Eywa, the great tree, and this coating over Jake can only be interpreted as some kind of special potential. After recovering from this "sign" from the life tree, there is no other choice for her but to introduce this avatar to her tribe, and to her powerful father.
"Why have you brought him here," her father sternly demands. "He has been welcomed by Eywa," she declares, "he is without fear." None have ever before been granted such recognition and the dignity it bestows upon him immediately turns tribal contempt to mystical embrace. Neyteri is commissioned to teach Jake the Na'vi ways and, for a borish and immature youth, the process and the tests he undergoes is a challenging one, full of hairy action and impossible courage (thanks to Cameron's skill with digital effects and choreographic ingenuity).
Jake knows that, with this development, he's quickly on his way to fulfilling his mission by obtaining the trust of the tribe, its elders, and his demanding new friend. What he doesn't yet know is that Neytiri, and what he learns about her world, puts him on a path that will not only compromise his mission, but make him an enemy of it.
Jake is game for the extreme trials and lessons about Na'vi custom, proving himself with each one, learning the defensive skills that will keep him alive. In one example fundamental to tribal values, Neytiri shows him the principle of mutual choice by how he must connect his soul to that of the horse-like creature that will be his if it agrees, which can then be guided by his thoughts. He'll also tame a wild Banshee in time to repel an attack by an even greater winged creature patterned on the pre-historic pterodactyl, the red and fearsome "Toruk" that has been tamed by only five warriors before him.
Before he will be fully initiated into the Omaticaya, Neytiri's clan, however, he will have reached an even greater goal: a major spiritual awakening and significant character development. A bond of affection between him and his lovely tutor grows, as well.
Writer-director Cameron creates a background for this developing love story by providing the action and thrills that call for high athleticism, great hissy creatures, both winged and ground-bound, invasion action that'll bring you back to Vietnam, mystical jungle art, and more--all in a grand sweep of new techniques in CGI effects, motion capture, mechanical animals, skin rendition, and futuristic military armament.
For the photography, he and Vince Pace developed the Sony Pace-Cameron Fusion camera system which features a "'Constant Divergence Algorithm' that adjusts S3D settings so stereo will match from shot to shot" (Daily Variety, 12/21/09). With all this, and the magnificent work of cinematographer Mauro Fiore ("The Kingdom"), the auteur brings us a gloriously variegated visualization with a sensory and sensual payload.
It's enough to give a composer a mystical high, which James Horner ("The New World") puts to use in a new age package of auditory myth and conjuring that captures the wonder and the awe of the Na'vi forest and the heartbeat of the people themselves. Imagine a musical impression of bioluminscence with choir and digital orchestration.
Beyond the art and the technological foundation, however, you can't blame Cameron if he's aiming for that audience heartbeat he obtained in "Titanic." There's no doubt he's going for another brass ring--as if he's not already in the history books for what his exacting discipline and rich imagination has already achieved.
Those critical of this movie are saying that, for all of Cameron's leading-edge technological exactitude, the story itself breaks no new ground, reducible to basic story elements of the thriller love story with villains and death-defying feats to keep our blood and emotional reactions racing. That, at least, forms their basis of complaint. I, myself, would have wished for something more visionary than a crazed colonel commanding overwhelming attack forces and air weaponry. But the unique other-world simulations with the love of nature theme is an achievement that is likely to keep critics in the minority.
Cameron shows us that in a sci-fi world, creative dimensions are what you devise and, with his skilled and sensual avatars, he has made something to thrill and captivate us--whether audience receipts top a billion dollars or not.
~~ Jules Brenner