This was published on National Review on Sunday night--worth seeing!
In *Avatar*’s opening moments, hero-to-be Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is
waking up on the planet Pandora after a cryogenic journey, and reflecting on
the twists of fate. Here he is, a paraplegic Marine, filling in for the twin
brother who actually trained for this mission. But right before Tommy was
due to ship out, “a guy with a gun put an end to his journey, for the paper
in his wallet.”
Sounds like a line from a Forties detective movie, doesn’t it? Or how about
this one: Evil Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) barks at his troops, “You
are not in Kansas any more, ladies and gentlemen. If there is a hell, you
might want to go there for some R&R after a spell on Pandora.” (The colonel,
you may be sure, has a trace of a Southern accent.) Later, he tells Jake,
“You got some heart, kid, showing up in this neighborhood.”
Jake replies offhandedly, “I figured it was just another hellhole.”
I think you get the picture. In this film, though, there are two pictures.
Later on, Jake walks among the Na’vi, the gentle people of Pandora, by means
of an avatar -- that is, a Na’vi body that was grown in a test tube, which
he remote-controls from a high-tech pod at the base camp. His lovely tutor,
Neytiri (excellently portrayed by Zoë Saldaña), explains that he, too, will
one day ride the enormous mountain banshees -- something like tie-dyed
pterodactyls—which in the native lingo are called (I think) “eclans.” “You
must choose your own eclan, and he must choose you,” says Neytiri.
“When?” Jake asks.
“When you are ready,” she replies.
Later, Neytiri watches approvingly as Jake goes through the ritual that
accompanies killing for food. “I see you, brother,” Jake says as he delivers
the final blow, “and I thank you. Your spirit will depart, and your body
stay here to become part of the People.”
Sorry to put you through that, but there’s really no way to describe just
how inane this dialogue is. The plot it is meant to sustain is every bit its
equal. You see, humans have destroyed the earth’s ecology. (“You will find
nothing green there,” Jake tells the Na’vi tribe. “They killed their
mother.”) Now they seek the resources of other worlds, in particular the
rich lode of a priceless mineral under Pandora’s crust.
This mineral is called “unobtainium.” It really, truly is. And the richest
reserves of unobtainium lie beneath the giant, ancient tree where the Na’vi
live. The bad colonel intends to get at it, one way or another (insert sound
of knuckles cracking here). He tells Jake, “I need to find out how to force
their cooperation, or hammer them hard if they don’t.”
Yet in presenting the apparently eternal conflict between gentle people with
flowers in their hair and technology-crazed meanies,*Avatar* comes to us by
means of the most advanced technology available. Director James Cameron took
14 years to make the movie, inventing a new process for 3-D in order to film
it. He took the motion-capture technology that gave us Gollum in the *Lord
of the Rings* trilogy, and advanced it several major steps forward. This
film was not made by folks who live in a giant tree.
And it’s unclear how this plaintive call to live in tune with nature is
supposed to be implemented by the viewers who take it to heart. Should we
demand that our popcorn be made over a campfire? Then hoof it home in a Fred
I don’t need to tell you that, at 161 minutes, *Avatar* is far too long for
material this thin. This story has been told plenty of times before, and
better. You can also expect that a hectic, noisy battle scene is surely on
the way, one that consumes great quantities of film in showing us what looks
like a video game.
What I didn’t expect was the sheer beauty of the film. It won me over. I
think it was the forests of Pandora that first broke through my grumpy
attitude -- the graceful trees, plants with enormous fan-like leaves,
curious twisted ferns that shyly retract when touched. Everything is glowing
in lavender, blue, and aqua; it could have been painted by Maxfield
The highly anticipated 3-D process is most successful, I think, with the
“seeds of the sacred tree,” a cross between a butterfly, a spider, and a
dandelion puff. When these seeds begin drifting down, they really do seem to
leave the screen and float over the heads of the audience.
Yet more beautiful were the Floating Mountains. These enormous floating
rocks, crowned with trees and trailing vines, are truly awe-inspiring; they
are worthy, I thought, of J. R. R. Tolkien.
So, yes, you need to see this movie, and see it while it’s in theaters,
full-screen and in 3-D. Yes, you can take the kids, but only if they can
handle some violent moments. The most graphic, I thought, came when a Na’vi
spoke his last words with a shattered tree limb through his chest. There’s
no nudity (though the cat-like Na’vis’ costumes are quite scanty) and the
single love scene is swift and discreet.
*Avatar *is a perplexing mix of glorious method and crummy material, and it
left me wondering why, in the hands of one artist, a familiar tale can move
us even more profoundly because of those earlier links, and we call it a
“classic” -- while in the hands of another artist it seems derivative and
stale. Why, in the hands of one artist, can a work express childlike wonder,
while another’s reveals childish immaturity? The characters pushed around in
this story seem like something thought up by a twelve-year-old. This is most
ludicrous in the climactic battle, when bad Col. Quaritch survives a series
of death-dealing blows that are increasingly hard to believe; at one point,
his shoulder is literally on fire. I pictured Cameron killing Quaritch off
with great satisfaction each day, then coming back the next day saying, “But
I can’t let him die *yet*!”
Some artists remain in touch with the inspirations and enthusiasms of their
twelve-year-old selves, and produce something fresh and moving. There’s no
reason that this script had to be as flat as it is. But, oh, the beauty.
James Cameron may have a tin ear for dialogue, but he indisputably has an
artist’s eye. Go see it on the big screen, and let yourself be dazzled.