Hating James Cameron is like hating He-Man. They’re both easy to ridicule, as they stand (respectively) in front of Castle Grayskull/the Oscar podium, bellowing “I have the power!” and parading their shortcomings for all to see. Both have a small boy’s adoration of physical strength: a certainty that size is preferable to subtlety. And they both seem drawn to strong women (Linda Hamilton/Teela). You can’t hate either of them properly – despite this litany of foibles – because they mean only to entertain. James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar, is a big, subtlety-free, Master-of-the-Universe freak-out, but it’s also visually astonishing to behold.
Far in the future, greedy earthmen are busy plundering new planets. One such planet is called Pandora; it’s home to the Na’vi, a twelve-foot-tall race of cerulean-skinned cat people, who act like Native Americans and talk like elves. Pandora’s atmosphere isn’t breathable to humans, so scientists have genetically engineered Na’vi bodies for humans to pilot, Being John Malkovich-style, as “avatars” (video game jargon for the elf / plumber / hedgehog / whatever you control in a video game). Our hero, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic former-Marine whose brain is gurgled into a strange new body.
Saying this movie works sounds like I’m espousing the Flat Earth theory. Everything about it sounds silly beyond belief. But Avatar triumphs because of technology. From the moment Jake starts wandering through the forests of Pandora, I guarantee your higher critical faculties will cease in amazement. There are parts of this movie that are mind-blowing, like seeing Jurassic Park for the first time, or seeing the bad terminator metamorphose in Terminator 2. You will forget that Pandora doesn’t exist sometimes. You will forget that you’re watching ones and zeroes. This is not like sitting bored-stupid through those Star Wars prequels. Against all odds (and justified Ferngully comparisons) this movie will blow you away.
Not that it’s perfect. Most of the story is recycled from Dances with Wolves, the dialogue seems written in crayon, and James Cameron is not one for nuanced characterisation. All the bad guys might as well have “bastard” tattooed on their foreheads. There’s a near-sex scene between two Na’vi that takes the audience to a weird place. The Na’vi are, at times, so bloody obviously Native American stand-ins that you wonder they don’t shout “Geronimo!” as they ride into battle. Morality has a certain Saturday-morning-cartoon-quality. And you will have to listen to people talk, quite a bit, about a “spirit tree”.
But forget your doubts. Embrace the gargantuan silliness. For all its faults, Avatar exerts a powerful hold on the audience. The love story between Jake and a Na’vi princess is (barring the near-sex scene) a success. Sam Worthington looks like a Marine even when he’s sleeping. Zoe Saldana (fresh from playing Uhura in Star Trek) makes another sci-fi babe – this time a blue babe with no pinkies – into someone bold and carnal. Sigourney Weaver makes her naked death scene (with strategically-placed leaves) dignified. Giovanni Ribisi plays a scumbag you can hiss. Michelle Rodriguez (in life, as in Avatar) kicks ass. And Stephen Lang plays a Marine Colonel so tough he doesn’t even put his coffee down when he orders an attack.
He-Man has done it again. James Cameron can still rightly call himself “king of the world”, and we doubters, Skeletor-like, must retreat to Snake Mountain. The scale of Avatar’s ambition is matched only by the wonder of seeing it all realised on screen. Two thirds (normally the kiss of death) computer generated, presented in 3D (kiss of death, again), a narrative stolen from a Kevin Costner ego-trip, packed full of Gaia gibberish and half-thought-out Iraq War parallels (not to mention 9/11 imagery)… but it works. Avatar is an act of hubris, but fate hasn’t caught up with James Cameron yet. You can hate him, by all means, but you must see this movie.