'Avatar': New Flesh Covers Old Bones
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In the years and days leading up to the release of "Avatar," James Cameron's long-in-production dream project and first feature film since 1997's box-office record-breaking "Titanic," anticipation and recrimination seemed to be running neck-and-neck. It would be a game-changer, the future of cinema OR it would be an expensive rehash of "Dances With Wolves," a hollow cartoon.
Now that "Avatar" is actually here, the reality falls somewhere between the peaks of hype and hatred: "Avatar" is a very big, very enjoyable, summertime action film that, much as it covers several actors in computer-generated imagery, drapes new flesh over very old bones. The technology and technique are as shiny and innovative as the story and themes are familiar and recycled, and the end result is something like ordering and eating a $100 burger at some white-linen four-star restaurant. It's well-made, and clearly cost a lot, and, at the end of the day, it is a burger. But considering how few big sci-fi action films are actually any good at all, perhaps we should just consider ourselves lucky. If there's nothing here as subversive as "The Matrix," there is also nothing here as stupidly silly as "Transformers 2."
In 2154, ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is recruited for a high-tech project in which his twin, now deceased, had a cloned body made that combined his DNA with that of the indigenous population on Pandora, a planet that houses the intelligent, tribal Na'vi. The idea is to pour one's consciousness into these bodies to survive Pandora's atmosphere and communicate with the locals, who just happen to have their home atop a huge deposit of a naturally-occurring superconductor. The priceless nature of "Unobtanium" makes all the expense and effort worth it. And Jake's a match for his brother's DNA, so he can use the "Avatar" body (and, as he's paralyzed from the waist down, wants to). All pleasures of the new flesh aside, he can earn enough to afford the operation to fix his spine. (Take note, progressives: Even in 2154, we don't have single-payer.)
Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) wants Jake to help talk to the Na'vi so as to collaborate and share. Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang, all scars, sweat and swagger) wants Jake to walk among the Na'vi to get the intel that'll help in the ass-kicking and name-taking it'll come down to if they don't want to move. And Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na'vi daughter of the chief, wants outsider interloper Jake to go away, but, come on: We've all seen enough movies to know how that's gonna work out.
It works out to climax in a battle between humanity's technological might and the Na'vi's pluck and spirit (plus a little backup from the local flora and fauna), with Jake and Neytiri's love over all. The action in "Avatar" is spectacular, and the action set-pieces are gigantic, and nonetheless framed around the familiar beats and breaks of "Pocahontas" or "Dances With Wolves." A soldier discovers love and belonging on the other side, and the right kind of war gives our hero nobility of purpose and us a mix of visceral action and moral righteousness. Credits. Curtain.
This is a story Cameron's had in his head since his teens, and you can tell, as a little more polish from a more grown-up sensibility might have sanded some of the juvenile rough edges off. Neytiri gives Jake a backhand compliment at one point: "You have a strong heart -- no fear. But stupid. Ignorant like a child." She should talk. Fans of the epic "Terminator 2" effects will like the innovations of "Avatar," but fans of the romance of "Titanic" will find Jake and Neytiri's affair shallow and simple.
Cameron's sensibility isn't the problem here, his superheated heart and brain as ever pumping a 50-50 mix of testosterone and tenderness, sci-fi and sensitivity. It's the execution that keeps you at arm's length. "We will fight terror with terror," Col. Quaritch grunts, promising "shock and awe." Jake tells Neytiri that, yes, he was sent to make the Na'vi move: "But then everything changed." And what's the point of all the innovative technology and quantum leaps in effects and 3-D splendor if the story and characters are so familiar and rote and two-dimensional?
Much is being made of the 3-D projection of "Avatar," and that effect is simultaneously restrained (there are mercifully few moments of long objects or hurtling rocks flying out perpendicular from the screen) and at the same time necessary (without the 3-D, the computer-crafted action and settings would seem flat and plastic and too-smooth). Without the 3-D, "Avatar" would look like a comic book; even with the 3-D, it still feels like one.
The point, I guess, is that "Avatar" looks awesome, and has knockout sequences, and somewhere Michael Bay and the Wachowskis and Roland Emmerich and Brett Ratner are sweating, or crying, over how far Cameron's raised the bar for big-screen action. "Avatar" is nothing new, but once you get your head out of the hype and the hate, you can appreciate it for the well-made adventure it is.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.