Enter the World
Wow, ten years and no sequel, huh?
While James Cameron’s wildly ambitious sci-fi environmental parable has suffered more than a few reputational knocks in the decade since it was released, it was a genuine cultural phenomenon when it first hit. Box office is not the only metric of quality — in fact, it’s only a measure of popularity — but it was the biggest grossing film of all time for a long time, only being knocked off the top slot by the juggernaut that was Avengers: Endgame (2019), a fall that was perhaps inevitable — the sheer gravitational pull of the MCU is, like a black hole, impossible to fight against, at least in terms of financial success and hegemonic cultural clout.
Still, Avatar is a better film than Endgame, which is a bunch of cool, iconic moments strung together in a way that makes very little narrative or thematic sense. Avatar at least knows what its story is, and what its themes are. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Avatar is actually a good film, but it is. It might fall short of greatness, but most movies do, even films we love. It’s not Cameron’s best film (that’s The Terminator (1984), and not much is going to change that) or my personal favorite — The Abyss (1989) — but it’s the most James Cameron of James Cameron’s oeuvre, incorporating ideas and motifs that he has returned to again and again over the course of his career.
Is it derivative? Sure, in the way that all modern pop sci-fi films are, and if it’s a sin for one, then it must be a sin for all. I can’t fathom getting a kick out of labeling Avatar a FernGully rip off or making a Smurfs joke (although ThunderSmurfs is pretty funny) and not dragging Star Wars for the same kind of thing — hell, in Frank Herbert’s Dune they share a common ancestor, and that’s just one of many. They’re both essentially polished up planetary romances in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition, drawing on different periods and modes of sci-fi for their aesthetics and tone.
The sources Avatar is really pulling in — to the point where a couple of pundits and the odd legal professional have mused upon the exact line between plagiarism and inspiration — are deeper cuts: prog rock fantasy artist Roger Dean (case dismissed), Poul Anderson’s novel Call Me Joe, and a host of other somewhat obscure sci-fi paperbacks that young truck drivin’, SF-lovin’ Jimmy C might have thumbed through back in the day. It all goes in the hopper, and hopefully, at the other end of the fermentation process, we get something that synthesizes the ingredients into something new — or at least newish.
Avatar isn’t new enough in terms of narrative, but in execution it’s fantastic. The plot riffs on colonial fantasy tropes and planetary romance fiction, leaning a little too heavily in the direction of White Savior nonsense for some but presenting a robust enough framework for action and visual spectacle. Our hero is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is given the chance to walk again — by proxy at least — by joining the Avatar Project on the alien moon of Pandora, where resistance by the Indigenous sapients, the 10 foot tall, catlike, blue Na’Vi, is hampering the mining of a superconducting mineral dubbed Unobtainium (and if you’re still giggling over that one, read a book).
The Avatar Project is a kind of outreach program which sees human emissaries interacting with the Na’Vi while remote piloting genetically engineered human-Na’Vi hybrids. While scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, reuniting with her Aliens director) champions the project, security chief Colonel Miles Quaritch (the great Stephen Lang) is convinced it’ll all come down to gunfire and napalm, while colony admin Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is just here for the quarterly reports. Meanwhile, our man Jake is going native, romancing tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), generally proving himself better at all the Na’Vi warrior stuff than the actual Na’Vi (there’s that Mighty Whitey trope again), and inevitably honing in on a hard choice between his human heritage and his newfound Na’Vi identity.
But you know all that — I’m just stating it for the record. The basic plotline is very familiar, but that simple chassis lets Cameron layer in a lot of interesting details and themes.
In terms of worldbuilding, Avatar is not just a triumph, but arguably one of the most accomplished pieces of hard (for a certain value of ‘hard’) sci-fi ever put to screen. Even watching it today, with the CGI SOTA having moved forward, the level of detail and the sense of immersion is incredible. Back in 2009, seeing it in 3D in the cinema, the effect was genuinely mindblowing. It felt like a gamechanger, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, as a cursory glance at Ang Lee’s would-be needle-mover Gemini Man can tell you. 3D is a tricky technological and aesthetic winkle to deploy, and the format’s general failure to become the exhibition standard demonstrates that it’s far easier to get wrong than right. However, in the hands of a guy like Cameron, an artist with the mind of an engineer, who has proven again and again his facility of advancing the technology of cinema in service of story, it works a treat.
It’s hard to say whether the film’s aesthetic is in service to the technology or vice versa — it’s a symbiotic relationship (how fitting for an ecologically-themed SF epic). The human tech is an extrapolation of the what Cameron has been doing in the genre since 1984’s The Terminator, and especially in 1986’s Aliens, building on what Ridley Scott had done in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) but applying a hardnosed pragmatism to the work, pushing the design more towards function than taste. Which seems like a pretty natural evolution but take note of the film’s extensive use of in-universe hologram technology — a visual flourish that fits with Cameron’s general techno-aesthetic bent, but absolutely pops in 3D.
Pandora’s natural biosphere is carefully constructed in a similar manner, with the textured tree trunks and canopy layers of the alien rainforest setting natural-seeming planes of focus within the frame. Rather than the usual rock-throwing, spear-jabbing-at-the-frame 3D tricks, Avatar’s go-to showcase for the technology is like a series of concentric proscenium arches, inviting us into the world rather than jumping out at us in ours.
And it is quite a world we’re being invited into. Cameron’s oceanographic exploits very much inform the construction of Pandora’s biome, which, while not as intricate and complex as any known environment, certainly goes to lengths to demonstrate a readily graspable abstraction of biological complexity. Which is to say, Cameron has developed an alien world which, while not impervious to close scrutiny, to the layman is orders of magnitude more plausible and fascinating than any given rank-and-file SF world. The screen pulses with life — forget, if you can, the various thanators and viperwolves, the herd-grazing hammerhead titanothere and the predatory leonopteryx — look at the insects, lizards, and flying critters present in almost every scene, just flittering around the characters, speaking to a thriving living environment.
It’s also worth noting that all the animal life on Pandora is built on a basic six-limbed frame except the Na’vi, who are four-limbed — a quiet, deliberately perplexing element that I hope will be explored in future sequels. The Na’vi culture is well-rendered, taking fairly obvious inspiration from Indigenous American cultures — and, yeah, unarguably collecting some unfortunate ‘noble savage’ residue along the way. I’d say that the idealized, nigh-Arcadian manner in which the Na’Vi are presented is key to Cameron working through his most constant theme, which is a mistrust of and fascination with, not just technology, but institutions and hierarchical, masculine power as a whole. It’s a set of concerns that recurs through his entire body of work, and while he fetishizes machinery and weaponry, all the tech and the toys, he clearly has a hard time believing in the people wielding them, at least in the upper echelons of power. His heroes (and heroines — Cameron has a notable legacy of strong female protagonists) are capable individuals and small collectives working for the greater good; he knows that above a certain pay grade, priorities get messed up, and the miracles of science are subservient to the drives of profit and oppression. There’s a reason why six of Cameron’s seven directorial efforts to date include a nuclear explosion. The A-bomb is the perfect encapsulation of this constant theme — knowledge that could free us being used to destroy.
So, in this light, Cameron’s line of inquiry is not the dividing line between nature and technology; rather, he seeks to reconcile what he sees as a false dichotomy. Science is nature in Cameron’s worldview, or at least nature is knowable through science. In Avatar, he goes so far as to create a rational spirituality for the Na’Vi, their plug ‘n’ play hair braids letting them connect to what appears to be a planet-wide shared consciousness centered on the rainforest in general and the Na’Vi Home Tree shrine in particular. In the world of Avatar, the afterlife is knowable and measurable, thus grounding the film’s spirituality in something approaching fact — the work of an artist with the mind of an engineer.
This reconciliation occurs through action and violence of course — Cameron is still Cameron, one of the best action directors of the last 30-odd years, and he knows that we, like he, took all the wrong lessons from Apocalypse Now (1979) and still get giddy at the sight of high tech helicopters flying in formation and door gunners blazing away. In Avatar’s barnstorming climax, we get all that, plus dragons, plus soldiers in powered armor, plus our own Colonel Kilgore in the form of Lang’s scarred and ruthless Colonel Quaritch, the kind of iconic villain that Clancy Brown or Michael Ironside would have played 20 years ago.
Crucially, for all that Avatar puts Jake Sully firmly in the ‘chosen one’ role, and gives him plenty of opportunities to, by action, position himself as better than the Na’Vi warriors he is aping, victory is finally achieved through collective action: Jake and the Na’Vi and the rebel scientists of the Avatar Project (including Michelle Rodriguez’s SecOps pilot Trudy Chacón and Joel David Moore’s anthropologist Norm Spellman) plus the very animals of the Pandoran jungle working in concert to effectively reject the human infection that is the mining colony. It’s not a perfect refutation of the weird, libertarian, rugged individualism that sits at the core of most Western drama, but it’s a solid few steps beyond what we usually get. This is carried right through to the film’s final image, a close up of Jake opening his eye in his Avatar body, having permanently rejected his human life in favor of loving on Pandora forever. He’s found his place in a greater whole, his niche in the ecology if you will. His lonely individualism — remember, as the film opens, it’s implied he’s even estranged from his own twin brother — brought him nothing but pain; only in subsuming at least part of his will to the whole has he found peace.
In recent years much has been made about how Avatar didn’t leave much of a cultural footprint, but I think that’s coming from a viewpoint immersed in franchise culture, where a successful film must be continued and expanded upon more out of obeisance to market forces than any creative drive. Avatar isn’t currently present in the pop culture because Avatar came out ten years ago, and the first sequel in production is not due for release until let’s see here … 2021. We seem to have forgotten that there was a time when Star Wars had dropped almost completely out of the public eye, the flame being kept alive by the good TTRPG nerds at West End Games and, eventually, a series of overrated expansion novels before new films started hitting in 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi. Blade Runner similarly languished, and The Thing (1982), and Star Trek, and any number of similar pop culture icons we expect to be permanently embedded in the pop firmament. What’s exciting about the prospect of new Avatar flicks is that they’re most assuredly not just dropping off the end of the film factory production line. Whatever they’re going to be — and I make no assurances as to their quality — they will be exactly what James Cameron wants them to be. Avatar currently stands as the most James Cameron film James Cameron ever made — but that may change soon.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson