We saw James Cameron’s AVATAR on Christmas Day, well into the inevitable First Backlash. After dazzling early reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert, Tony Scott, Todd McCarthy, Peter Travers and Manohla Dargis, the first fans trooped in expecting to become high priests, and the movie took some lumps. We’ve been waiting all these years for…this? Why, it’s nothing but effects! And the story: it’s just DANCES WITH WOLVES in space! One guy on a message board I follow even said he was “angry,” it was “atrocious,” a “thorough failure.” The First Backlash is sometimes so powerful that it even helps: I waited so long to see THE PHANTOM MENACE that it turned out to be much better than I’d expected after wading through a three-month barrage of brickbats.
Well, I wasn’t incensed by AVATAR at all; more frequently I was exhilarated. There are caveats, of course. As a writer of dialogue, Jim Cameron has never exactly been confused with Noel Coward (“I’ll be back!” “I’m the king of the world!” “Stay frosty!”), and despite the current lamentable mini-trend toward non-linear narrative, there are only a handful of different stories ever invented. This one combines the forbidden love affair (ROMEO & JULIET, TITANIC) with a fish out of water (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) forced to understand a new type of honesty (AARON SLICK FROM PUNKIN CRICK). It can quickly deconstruct into absurdity whenever you try to play, “I’ve seen this story before.”
What nobody can deny – besides Cameron’s being a jolly good fellow – is that the visual inventiveness is sumptuous. The flora and fauna on Pandora, the space place depicted here, all seem brand new, yet many come from very familiar twists: bring underwater creatures into the air and vice versa, etc. (Make an extra effort to watch AVATAR in 3-D if you possibly can.) Seen it before? This isn’t a “science fiction” film, but an earth-mother fantasy introduced with pseudoscientific tropes: the concept of an “avatar” sounds contemporary, but leads us into a world less suited to a hacker than to those poor Ewoks. The Hometree, host to everybody we meet, is unknowingly massive, and its fate is completely in Cameron’s hands. But it’s not in the hands that the film resides. It’s in the faces.
Somebody did a very shrewd thing by casting Sigourney Weaver. She’s the only recognizable face whose “avatar” is Na’vi, one of the ten-foot-tall blue beings native to Pandora. (Hey, Glenn Beck: every single archer I noticed was a lefty! Hmmmm?) Whenever you see Weaver’s Na’vi persona, maybe all of 2 minutes in a 2:40 picture, Cameron is showing you, this is what we did to all the actors. Weaver’s personality, her mouth, smile, cheekbones, gait, absolutely shine through: this is not a woman in a rubber suit, but neither is it a woman. It’s something in between. The rest of the Na’vi must be populated by unknown faces, including our two leads, so that you can forget about being pulled out of the story with, “Damn! That’s Sigourney Weaver!” and just follow along. You have a lot of help: the technological leap is such that these creatures are absolutely believable — they make Gollum look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, IOW, a guy in a rubber suit. Especially in 3-D, you are watching a frickin documentary about ten-foot-tall critters with tails. It’s amazing, but even more amazing is that you finally forget about that and just accept the tribal culture. (By the way, one of the Na’vi is played by Wes Studi, the dean of Native American actors, so yes, Cameron is perfectly aware of the cultural echoes; he doesn’t slap his forehead when you point it out.)
Stephen Lang. He scared us in the Broadway production of A FEW GOOD MEN, and we were sitting all the way up in the balcony. (Jack Nicholson in the movie was a pale imitation, trust me.) Now, as a sociopathic Marine officer, he gets to burst some forehead blood vessels again, and I hope he gets more work out of this. He was, is, and will be, tremendous, and now he has a buncha those loaders like the one Sigourney used in ALIENS, only now they don’t load diddly but payload, if you get my drift. Giovanni Ribisi, as a civilian, more jaded version of Lang, is utterly unnecessary. One of those caveats.
The 3-D effect. Yes, it helps somewhat, and yes, it’s the future of theatrical performance. But there’s a great deal of work still to be done. At worst, especially human-against-human background, the effect looks like a “process shot” from the Forties. Better still, sometimes, like a multi-plane shot from classic Disney animation. But best of all, when, for example, the sense of a great impending fall is needed, it rocks. Only twice in the whole affair did something come flying out past my face in the cheesy “Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Stewardesses” manner. The rest of the third dimension was used to add depth inside the picture frame.
The best movie I ever saw? Please. The shape of movies presented in public to come? Without doubt.