Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Many Happy Returns - James Cameron's Avatar

Twenty-five years after its release, one of the scenes we remember best from 1984's The Terminator comes roughly halfway through the film, as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is being held at a police station, post-shootout/car chase with the title character. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives and, upon discovering he'll not be allowed to see (read: shoot) Sarah without some extra persuasive powers, he flatly states, "I'll be back." And come back he does -- through the front wall, in his beast of a 1970s sedan. After a twelve-year hiatus from feature films, the director of The Terminator is back, and with way cooler than a stolen car.

James Cameron is, I suppose, somewhat of an idol among us sci-fi/fantasy kids -- his record is absolutely packed with geek favorites, namely The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (best action movie ever?). Further still, all us Tolkien fans largely owe Peter Jackson's Gollum to technology originating with Cameron in Abyss and that most badass of all killer robots from the future, the T-1000. Needless to say, it's long been a tall order for this director to outdo himself, and for the most part, I'd say he hasn't -- but Avatar is still every bit the kind of action-packed, pleasantly-preachy Cameron sci-fi we love.

The best way I can summarize the film is as a unique mix of The Matrix, Aliens, Dances with Wolves, and a touch of Jurassic Park for a couple of quick action sequences. In its themes and sense of morality (which mostly boils down to "trees = good, genocide = bad"), we find nothing new; the film comes complete with wizened but behind-the-times native leader (voiced by Wes Studi, Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans) and belligerent military douche-bag (Stephen Lang; see his terrific performance as Ike Clanton in Tombstone). Even some of the character types of Cameron's previous films are recycled. For example, Parker, the token corporate wanker of Avatar, is essentially the same guy as Aliens' Carter Burke, who tried to attach facehuggers to both Sigourney Weaver and her orphan-girl protectorate so he could profit from research on the resulting killer aliens. Wankers, indeed.

But Avatar distinguishes itself in its literalism, in its forcefulness and urgency. It is likely no accident on Cameron's part that, despite evolving light-years apart, the many forms of life on Earth and Pandora (the alien planet) are only superficially different from each other. Here Cameron's devotion to computer-generated film lends itself most spectacularly to the overall environmentalist message -- the innumerable shots of Pandora's vast and diverse wilderness truly inspire wonder, awe, and eventually regret and anger as Major Douche-Bag (Lang) blows up the natives' home under (and inside) a beautifully gargantuan tree.

Obviously, we are intended to carry those emotions over to our own planet, which is for me the film's saving grace. Many of the scenes in which the hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) learns Na'vi culture feel very derivative, as if Cameron perhaps watched Pocahontas one too many times before writing Avatar's script. And yet even then, there's something new to look at in the Na'vi themselves, whose movements and mannerisms invoke both feline predator and Tolkien Elf-warrior. The only other mild disappointment in the movie was the relatively lackluster dispatch of Main Villain Dude -- in comeuppance for all his dastardly deeds, I was hoping for something on the order of Treebeard and Company v. Isengard (Ents: 1, Isengard: 0, in case you weren't near the telly for that match), but alas, he just gets arrowed a couple times. At least it's Neytiri, the heroine (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek) who does the killin' -- rounding out the trend of more or less equitable teamwork between she and Worthington's character.

At any rate, Avatar will likely move and entertain all but the most heartless of human beings, making it well worth your $18 ticket, or whatever exorbitant price they charge at a theater near you. One final thought: while James Cameron's previous sci-fi audiences have been fairly narrow (i.e., geeks only), Avatar avoids the heavy doses of graphic violence, convoluted plot lines and dark atmosphere that may have turned many people away from his earlier films, meaning that Avatar could appeal to a far wider demographic than he has ever reached with his more fanciful creations. I certainly hope that's true, as the whole "trees = good, genocide = bad" message seems one that still needs saying.

4 stars of 5.

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