There is a tiny detail among the bonanza of visual wonders in Avatar that convinced me the movie had achieved not only technical mastery, but something more: real artistry.
Avatar centers on an alien race called the Na’vi: blue-skinned, amber-eyed humanoids who leap among the gargantuan trees of the moon Pandora (the place looks like Endor on nuclear fertilizer). Their world – almost completely created in computers – is astonishing, yet the image that stuck with me is the way, in certain scenes, the sunlight delicately filters through the thin upper tips of the Na’vi’s ears.
There is a meticulously detailed richness to the movie’s universe that only the great science-fiction films have. Avatar is the first feature film written and directed by James Cameron since Titanic, and while the two pictures have much in common in terms of ambition, scope and budget, this time Cameron has wed his visuals with his story in a far smoother way. The record-shattering, Oscar-swallowing Titanic was an effects reel with a stiff, two-hour prologue. This is a movie.
The title refers to something most of us use every day in one form or another: a virtual representation of ourselves. For us it may be a videogame character or a Facebook profile. For Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the hero of Avatar, it’s a genetically engineered body made to look like one of the Na’vi. A mining company from Earth is stripping Pandora bare, which is making the natives restless. Sully, a former Marine who is paralyzed from the waist down, is tapped to “drive” one of these avatars in hopes of winning the locals’ hearts and minds – or, if all else fails, collecting enough intelligence to help exterminate them.
Cameron breaks no new ground when it comes to the basic plot. Sully learns compassion while among the Na’vi and even begins a romance with their version of a princess (Zoe Saldana). In other words, take Pocahontas, add a little Tron and then a dash of Dances with Wolves.
Employing computer-generated backgrounds and motion-capture technology – think Gollum – Cameron and his team of effects artists make Sully’s adventure our own. As he climbs the vines of Pandora’s “floating mountains” – massive, forested boulders that drift upward into the sky like balloons – the camera soars through the air and peers over yawning precipices. None of this may actually exist, but if you have acrophobia, you might want to avoid Avatar altogether.
Tron, of course, explored the concept of avatars long ago. What Cameron’s movie communicates, in a new way, is the thrill of having an altered and often ideal version of ourselves, as well as the moral consequences that come with employing a conscience-free alter ego.
Sully’s avatar isn’t the only one at play in the movie. His fellow security soldiers have 18-foot robots which they “wear” like giant Iron Man suits. When the soldiers punch, the robots mimic the action. Like the Predator drones our military employs in Afghanistan, the technology removes them a crucial degree from the actual violence.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Na’vi, who, in a strange way which I won’t go into, are able to form a connection with their world that gives them control over various alien creatures. These are avatars too, in a sense, yet it’s a symbiotic relationship, not an exploitative one.
For all its advanced computer power, Avatar ultimately envisions a hippie utopia that’s suspicious of the dehumanizing dangers of advanced technology. Think of it as a tree-hugging game for Nintendo Wii.