James Cameron has saved cinema but can he save your soul?

Contains some spoilers.

The box-office receipts are in. The critics agree. James Cameron has done it. After almost ten years of filmmaking exile, the Academy Award-winning director has returned with a sci-fi crowd-pleaser that might just change the way movies are made. With technology that pushes the sight and sound barrier, Avatar offers an immersive cinematic experience that is exactly what an industry – beleaguered by online piracy and in-home entertainment – needs: a reason to go back to the theater. Of all the film’s attractions (exotic alien worlds, aerial dogfights, jungle chase-sequences, and epic battles) its greatest achievement is that these moments are best enjoyed on the big screen and in 3D. If there was ever a film to see at the movies, Avatar is it.

Set in 2154, the film takes place on Pandora, an alien moon with lush forests, mountains suspended in mid-air, and wildlife straight out of the Cretaceous period. It also happens to be the location of a rare mineral ore that can save earth from the jaws of a crippling energy crisis. The only problem? An indigenous population is camped out on the richest concentration of the ore. Enter Jake Sully, an ex-marine played by Sam Worthington (seen earlier this year in the disappointing Terminator Salvation). After a combat injury left him without the use of his legs, Jake is offered the opportunity to replace his dead brother in an experimental program and pilot a genetically engineered ‘avatar’. The avatars are composites of human and alien DNA: built to look exactly like the indigenous aliens and therefore enable the SecFor mining corporation to interact with the blue-skinned Na’Vi. In signing up for the program, Jake manages to find unlikely acceptance among the Omatikaya clan and is allowed to learn their history and traditions. But as the mining corporation grows weary over finding a diplomatic solution, Jake falls for both the Na’Vi princess and their forest and is forced to make a decision that will put him at odds with the humans and their military might.

James Cameron is responsible for some of the best action and science fiction movies of all time (Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and Terminator 1 and 2) and there’s little doubt that Avatar will be added to that list. Cameron’s imaginative muscle rivals George Lucas and his painstaking attention to technical detail supersedes even Michael Mann. However, it is Cameron’s ambition (or lack of restraint) that clearly sets him apart from other contemporary directors. Avatar is one of the most expensive movies ever made, with a production budget of $230 million (that’s over $900 per frame), and required film and motion capture technology that had to be built from scratch. But unlike the other big loud spectacle films of 2009, Cameron has successfully joined technology and storytelling and delivered a transportive adventure that is equal to the hype.

Since Jurassic Park and even Cameron’s own Terminator 2, image and computer generated technology have become important parts of the narrative experience of film. In Avatar, Cameron pushes the boundaries once again and shows us that 3D is no gimmick. The photorealistic alien world of Pandora is both beautiful and terrifying, with breathtaking sights of phosphorescent flora and vertiginous, misty landscapes filled by believable eco-systems. More impressive, however, is the way Cameron is able to locate the action within his simulated world. This is not a video-game, or a Pixar film, but a seamless blend of CGI and live action that effectively reboots the wonder and magic of movies.

The actors themselves give adequate performances (Sigourney Weaver, as an impassioned but prickly scientist, and Zoe Saldana, from the inside of a catsuit, particularly stand out) but Cameron’s films are not remembered for their acting. Neither are they known for their narrative complexity. Avatar is no different. The story does not deliver any twists or surprises, and the characters never deviate from their one-dimensional caricatures. Cameron, who himself wrote the script, has absorbed (and even defined) the narrative austerity that is common to this genre of film. Borrowing storylines from films such as Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, Avatar follows a familiar formula, but it is compelling enough to mobilise audience attention and sustain the film’s ongoing spectacle.

Science fiction is a popular vehicle for storytelling because of the way it enables directors to interact with ideas that speak to the present in ways that other films cannot. Works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Dark City and last year’s excellent Moon are simultaneously fantastical and yet able to ask questions that are firmly rooted in the here and now. As an allegory of contemporary issues, Cameron’s Avatar has much to communicate. There is strong political commentary, from America’s foreign policy in Iraq (the villainous Colonel Quaritch declares a preemptive strive on the Na’Vi under the presumption that the humans must “fight terror with terror”) to fears over global warming and our impact on the environment (in Avatar, Earth has been denuded of its natural resources). It is also, as one commentator has pointed out, an exercise in historical revisionism, wanting to redress the history of the Native America Indians, in much the same way that Tartartino’s Inglorious Basterds is a reimagining of the ending of the second World War.

Cameron’s strongest messages in Avatar are about capitalism, technology and nature. However, these messages are paradoxical at best, and ultimately undone in their telling. Avatar‘s assault on corporate exploitation and capitalist greed comes packaged in ironically one of the most costly, commercially bloated movies in history. The film’s criticism of technology too is problematic. Cameron (who is responsible for the ultimate inspiration of industrial terror,  Skynet), extols the virtues of a simple, natural way of life and attacks technology, seen especially in the final (thrilling) battle between Jake and the exosuited Quaritch. Technology has created dehumanized, disembodied souls. But what is Cameron’s solution to this hyper-technological unease?

Well, more technology, in fact. One of the central moral values in Avatar is the virtue of seeing through different eyes. And technology is the means of achieving this moral end. Compassion for ‘the other’ in Avatar only occurs via technological incarnation (much like another sci-fi film that came out last year, District 9). The mining corporation CEO, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), and the SecFor soldiers embody a kind of blindness as they view the Na’vi as nothing but savages and a hindrance to the extraction of the mineral ore. Jake himself is only able to undergo a conversion of understanding by taking on the body of an Avatar and living amidst the Na’Vi. This culminates in his relationship with Neytiri and in being able to meaningfully express the phrase “I see you”. And, of course, this is the point. With Avatar and its wonderland of technological tricks, Cameron has given the audience new eyes to see. At the close of the nineties, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix protested our Cartesian technological imprisonment, and it is interesting that this last decade has ended with Cameron’s promotion of deeper technological immersion.

Another paradox is also found in Cameron’s handling of spirituality. The deity of the Na’Vi is the “All Mother” or Eywa, who inhabits nature and connects all energy and life. Imbibing the New Age theosophy universal to Hollywood, Cameron presents us with a pantheistic god who is morally indifferent and who, as Neytiri tells Jake,  will not “take sides”. But Cameron cannot hold true to this vision. In the climactic third act, when the characters are confronted with the horror and presence of evil, the pantheistic god is forgotten and Cameron must employ a very literal deus ex machina. He wants the amoral, quasi-mystical ecological god but knows he needs the moral judge of Christian theism who does in fact take sides. Like all stories, including the more real one we find ourselves in beyond the walls of our theater or cinemaplex, there can be no resolution unless God steps in to end evil.

Avatar is a sensory-action feat that deserves an audience. Cameron has delivered a ride that has taken the medium to new heights. But where the director’s goal isn’t just to gratify the senses or present an escapist experience, the film falls flat. With Avatar, Cameron has returned to his place at the top of the world – but we can be grateful that the throne of David is already occupied.

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