2009, Dir. James Cameron
Avatar (2009) has been churning about in James Cameron’s head for the past 15 years. He intended to release it right after Titanic (1997), but decided to wait for technology to catch up to his vision. At an epic 160 minutes, Avatar was well worth the wait.
The story follows a paraplegic Marine of the mid-22nd Century who jumps on (figuratively, of course) the opportunity to travel to a distant world and control an Avatar: a biological-created life form resembling a Na’vi. The Na’vi are the intelligent, peace-loving, tribal species of the Earth-like moon Pandora. By adopting this body, the Marine will not only be aiding Earth’s effort to integrate with the local population, but he’ll also get to walk again. Of course, humans didn’t travel 4.6 light years across the galaxy to make friends. No, Pandora is the source of unobtainium, a mineral worth millions on a resource-depleted Earth. Clan integration via Avatar is the humane scientists’ attempt to peacefully deal with the Na’vi, convincing them to move before the evil industrial military folk rape their land of the precious rock, destroying their village in the process.
A military man thrown into the clan of the native population his side is trying to take over? Nature and peace threatened by a money-loving industry? Gigantic military spaceships? One can pretty much guess the rest the plot from here. While Cameron directly cited Dances With Wolves (1990) as part of his inspiration, to me it was an epic, sci-fi version of Fern Gully(1992). It “sampled” from the Pocahontas story as well. Needless to say, Avatar’s storyline is about as original as a P. Diddy song. Also, the characters were formed from oft-used molds: a gun-toting hero with a heart of gold, a terse yet passionate scientist/humanitarian, a diehard military leader, an attractive chief’s daughter that shows the outsider her clan’s way of life. The list goes on. And yet, despite these worn-out clichés, I still held my breath during the narrow escapes, felt grief during the village attacks, and cheered when the good guys won. Why? Although Avatar does not work your brain too hard, it will capture your imagination. Last night, it captured mine and, frankly, still hasn’t let go.
One reason I think Avatar worked so well is that its cutting-edge animation technology supported the core parts of the film (story, plot, actors, setting, etc.), instead of the other way around (cough—Star Wars prequels!—cough). The final film is a reported 60% computer animation and 40% live action. Though I could easily deduce one from the other, they blended so well together that the hybrid nature of the film was not a distraction. However, more amazing than the grand views of Pandora—and my, were they grand!—was how easily the actors’ movement came through. Apparently, the new motion-capture technology they used maintained about 95% of the actors’ performance, and it showed. Their movements were tight and subtle, not sweeping and exaggerated like we’re used to seeing in typical animation, CG or otherwise. Specifically, the Na’vi facial expressions were what really blew me away. I could sense the characters’ thoughts and emotions in the small way their eyes changed or their mouths moved. And—I promise you this—I realized that Neytiri, the lead female Na’vi, was played by Zoe Saldana by facial recognition alone, not only in the structure of the face but its movement, as well. I had no idea Saldana involved going into this film. That, my friends, is how spectacular animation supports the film instead of taking center stage.
The other reason I believe Avatar captured my imagination is because Cameron worked hard to create a world in which I could immerse myself. Filmmakers have been creating alien worlds and alien species forever, but they often stopped when they have everything named. Cameron went a few steps further and created a culture, a society, and a language (the Na’vi language consists of about 1000 words, sentence structure, conjugated verbs, and so on). He created flora and fauna. He created an entire ecosystem with mystical understanding and scientific explanation. The kicker, though, is that he created a whole new world whose intricacies are accessible by viewing the film alone and not through “expanded universe” books and whatnot (George Lucas may have created a galaxy far, far away, but it was hundreds of Lucas-approved authors that drew up the intricacies of said galaxy, accessible through beyond-the-film merchandise). I found myself caring about these remarkably-animated characters because I believed in the world from which they came and the cause in which they fought.
In conclusion, although I had walked into Avatar apprehensive about the latest big-budget, CG spectacle film of the season, I walked out wanting to see it again, to return to the world of Pandora, to care for the Na’vi, to cheer on the protagonists and hiss at the villains. The story is familiar, as is the not-so-subtle “imperialism is bad” message, but that pales in comparison to how well it’s told and how beautifully it’s shown.