Friday, December 18, 2009

With 'Avatar,' Cameron is king of all worlds

Cancel whatever plans you have this weekend. Go find yourself the biggest screen showing "Avatar" in 3-D. It's utterly astonishing. Not the story so much, which is "Dancing with Wolves" or "Ferngully" all over again, but James Cameron's feat of visual imagination is as astonishing as watching Jesus walk on water. As Steven Spielberg put it, "The last time I came out of a movie feeling that way it was the first time I saw Star Wars."

Truth is, my faith in James Cameron had waned. He was, after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, my first real movie director hero. I remember the day vividly. At age 14, my parents dropped me off at a cinema and I opted to see "Aliens." Didn't know a thing about it. Had never even heard of "Alien" at that point. The movie poster of a sweaty Sigourney Weaver even looked oddly like Michael Jackson. But I knew it was sci-fi and that was enough for me. I was one of four people in the movie theater for a matinee screening and that sense of isolation only enhanced what became one of the most intense cinematic experiences of my life. "Aliens" is a masterpiece. An action-suspense film that clamps down on your heart because Cameron spends a lot of time developing characters you care about.

From that day I was a fan. I was entranced by both "Terminator" movies as well as the tongue-in-cheek homage to James Bond, "True Lies." I particularly loved "The Abyss" (well, apart from the "ET" ending) because the scuba diver in me has always been fascinated by the deep. Has there ever been a more heart-stopping moment in cinema when the Ed Harris character tries to revive his wife, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio?

Alas, "Titanic" shook my faith in Cameron. The movie has numerous incredible scenes and the third-act sinking of the boat is utterly indelible. But the characters of Jack and Rose were too cartoonish and Cameron's depiction of the social mores of 1912 seemed far too modern in sensibility to be believable. Kate and Leo may have had a natural chemistry but the crass storytelling and risible dialogue kept me at arm's length from fully embracing the film, much as I wanted to. Don't even get me started about the silliness of Billy Zane's character chasing after Leonardo with a gun even as the ship is sinking...

"Avatar" reminded me why I loved James Cameron in the first place. You may already know the story which, according to some, is a rip off of a Poul Anderson's short story, "Call Me Joe."

"Avatar" is set in the year 2157. A distant planet, "Pandora," holds vast repositories of a precious ore that Earth badly desires. But the planet is inhabited by the N'Avi, primitive, blue-skinned alien beings who resemble a cross between Andrew Lloyd Weber's cat people, giraffes, and the smurfs. A group of American marines led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) draws up plans to forcibly remove the N'Avi even as a peacenik scientific research team led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) tries to integrate itself into the native tribe through bio-engineered Avatars that resemble the N'Avi. The hero of the story, a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), finds a new lease on life inside his Avatar since he's able to walk once again using this new body. During his first visit to the jungle -- an environment by turns wondrous and dangerous -- he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a fetching, yet fierce, N'Avi warrior. Jake starts living with the N'Avi and it gives nothing away to report that, in the process, he goes native.

So far, so predictable, right? Well, the story may not hold any narrative surprises but the characters are effectively embodied by the cast. Sam Worthington is solid, though hardly revelatory. Stephen Lang's top-brass Marine is so bad-ass that he'd reduce the likes of Colonel Kilgore and Lee Ermey to warming his toilet seat for him.

As with all James Cameron movies, it's the women who get the richest and most rewarding roles. Sigourney Weaver is all guts and gumption but, in a performance that echoes her Ellen Ripley character in "Aliens," she gradually softens to reveal a maternal side, too.

Zoe Saldana, who played Uhura in the recent "Star Trek," is particularly effective. She's the one actress we never actually see because her whole performance is rendered with pixels. Yet her body posture and facial expressions are particularly expressive. That's because Cameron devised unique technology to digitally capture the motions and emotions of his actors. The cast weren't just rigged in motion-capture suits. They were also fitted with helmets with small cameras that could capture everything from a cheek twitch to the movement of the tongue. (To read more about the technology behind "Avatar," here's a story I wrote on it.)

Naysayers figured that the N'Avi characters would be a folly on a par with Jar Jar Binks, but Cameron's photo-realistic technology allows for surprising depth of performance. Until now, computer-generated characters have been hobbled by a fatal flaw: Their eyes look as dead as those of a Great White shark. But the N'Avi's pupils have been animated with the crucial spark of life that makes them well, almost human. If we didn't connect emotionally with these computer-rendered extra-terrestrial beings, the movie would be a failure.

Technologically, this film truly is a gamechanger. Of course, all the tech would just be a bunch of flashy pixels without the steady hand of a gifted filmmaker. The pacing, the action, the core emotion, the visual imagination of every frame makes one realize what hacks most Hollywood action directors are. "Avatar" is also an effective love story and, instead of serving up a de rigeur action sequence every couple of minutes, Cameron lets the middle part of the movie breathe serene quiet as we get to explore "Pandora" and understand its natives. It doesn't flag for a minute, even at nearly 3 hours.

There are things one could quibble about in terms of the story's message and its cliches about noble savages tamed by the white man. (The first dialogue exchange between Jake Sully and Neytiri is uncomfortably "Me Tarzan, You Jane.") The film also floats the notion that a primitive tribal existence is akin to living in Eden. It's a powerful and romantic notion when, in fact, such an existence would be painful and difficult -- truly Hobbesian. Tribal cultures have often trafficked in cannibalism and human sacrifice and war. It's the reason mankind progressed beyond a hunter gatherer mode. A more interesting picture might have explored whether Pandora's native tribes couldn't have benefitted from education and technology at the expense of tradition. The film's anti-technology/ back-to-nature theme is a bit rich when the filmmaking itself is a technological marvel. But the movie's magic trumps such flaws while you're watching it.

As film critic Peter Rainer notes, "Avatar" is the most expensive Cowboys and Indians film ever made. (Also, you know you're watching science fiction when a 22nd-Century America is still the world's super power, rather than India or China.)

James Cameron stated that he aimed to make a film that would make people go to the cinema again. Indeed, watching this in 3-D is to be immersed in virtual reality. It's like spending three hours on a distant planet envisaged by Roger Dean, the artist who created all the Yes album covers. (See the movie, then compare the art direction to these album Roger Dean album covers with ribcage rock formations and floating rocks.)

Where the film truly triumphs in originality its imagination of a rich extraterrestrial ecosystem where dinosaur-like creatures coexist with Jellyfish-like sprites that float like dandelions. Many of the creatures were clearly inspired by Cameron's excursions to the deepest part of the oceans.

Movie critic Ty Burr sums it up best when he writes, "I could go on about the depth of field in the rapturous 3-D landscapes, how cleanly each individual leaf and insect is realized, how fully visualized the critters, but words start to fail. “Avatar’’ is an entertainment to be not just seen but absorbed on a molecular level; it’s as close to a full-body experience as we’ll get until they invent the holo-suits."

Truly, this is one film experience that won't translate to DVD and a TV screen. Let alone an iPod.

I saw the film at Fox studios and the star, Sam Worthington, did an engaging Q&A afterward. He said that Cameron's intial cut of the movie was 5 hours long and so they cut out several subplots and opted for narrative shortcuts. It also sounds as if Cameron has mellowed as a person. Worthington mentioned that he'd heard horror stories about Cameron as a dictator on the set of "Titanic" but Worthington said that the director tried to get people on board with him to realize his vision and so he couldn't afford to alienate his crew.

Worthington also said that Cameron already has the story for the sequel mapped out but it all depends on whether the movie -- the most expensive ever made -- is a hit or not. Prior to seeing the film, I thought that "Sherlock Holmes" would be this winter's big hit. But once word of mouth gets around, "Avatar" will play for months and months as moviegoers queue up for repeat trips to the wondrous world of "Pandora." With "Avatar," James Cameron isn't just "King of the World." He's king of all the other worlds, too.

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