The Bigger They Come
by Jeff Reichert

Dir. James Cameron, U.S., 20th Century Fox

Avatar, James Cameron’s muscular fantasy of cross-cultural warfare and romance, spent its first month in release bludgeoning its way to the top of the all-time grosses pile, inching ever closer to unseating the highest grossing (without adjustment for inflation) film of all time: James Cameron’s Titanic. It took home Golden Globes for Best Director and Picture, and was nominated in those categories, plus a lot of others, at the Academy Awards. We didn't review the film when it initially came out, as there’s value in viewing a film like Avatar from a later vantage point, in the wake of the weekly critics, the blogs, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, the film’s massive financial windfall, and the curious cases of fans suffering a “blue dip” from their inability to join the Na’vi race on Pandora (not to mention amateur Na’vi porn sites). Larger questions than how successful the film is as art enter into the equation; assessment of the film’s aesthetic merits shouldn’t be avoided, but it’s clear by now that Avatar represents something important, something very big to the industry—in the sense of how films are made, distributed, exhibited, and received—but what that is remains unclear. It feels likely at this point that we’ll look back on the last major release of the aughts as a watershed moment and feel that big budget entertainments were different post-Avatar. But how?

Avatar’s massive success arrived in the face of large, looming question marks: Over a decade after Titanic, would anyone care about, much less remember James Cameron? Much of his intended audience was barely born when Titanic hit; Terminator 2, genre-defining for my generation, is an even more distant object. Would Avatar just be Ferngully in 3-D, as it appeared in a much-derided trailer? Could the visual effects, for which Cameron famously delayed the film for years, possibly live up to the hype? How thuddingly literal would the script be? What would happen to 20th Century Fox if their multi-million dollar gamble didn’t pay off? There’s nothing safe about Avatar in the cruel rubric of studio calculation, no previously proven property to build a marketing machine around (note that all the current top ten international grossers involve a certain teen wizard, hobbits, Disneyworld rides, and comic-book characters save for Cameron’s two entries), only the hubris of a writer-director-editor who’s proven himself through the years equal parts megalomaniac recluse and technical wizard; he’s contemporary cinema’s P.T. Barnum, and he doesn’t make films unless they’re to be the Greatest Show on Earth. Audience response to both Titanic and Avatar suggests a hunger for grand spectacle, movies that are events in themselves, but also a commensurate desire for the pleasure of clean storytelling, familiarly uncomplicated characters, comforting tropes, a refreshing (or, corny) lack of cynicism. Avatar’s expansiveness could well spark an arm’s race among the studios to find the next and biggest stage upon which to showcase rapidly expanding technologies in a theatrical setting, but will production execs get that the lasting appeal of Cameron’s films comes not from his effects but from the simple stories he tells?

The problem with a movie like this is, of course, that there may be no other filmmaker working who could create anything quite like it. There’s a reluctance to make claims for James Cameron as an auteur in the sense we film critics typically use the word, probably for various reasons: their aim for universal (even bigger than mass) appeal; their often simplistic binary politics; screenplays that, to put it nicely, aren’t exactly models of linguistic cleverness; the emphasis on brawny action set pieces over brainy mise-en-scène. Yet, what other word can we use to describe a filmmaker who has written and directed nearly all of his films, opened his own coffers to ensure creative control over final works, and in his last two features captured the imagination of the moviegoing public by starting out with his own creativity as opposed to market-tested source material? He makes films that people feel compelled to see, and even though he creates worlds via tons of money and technology (oftentimes held as antitheses to serious filmmaking craft), Cameron’s pairing of tried-and-true narrative devices with heretofore unseen spectacle is unique in contemporary cinema. His closest company is probably Spielberg, but Cameron outstrips him in ambition and plain canniness, if not sensitivity and innate visual talent. When set against the emerging crop of big moviemakers like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, there’s no comparison. Who today wouldn’t take the positively humane Terminator 2 over the coldly machine-tooled jingoistic Transformers 2 or frighteningly reactionary 300? The personality—the stamp of auteurship—of James Cameron’s films comes not from their degree of intimacy or particularity but their grandeur and attempts at broad appeal.

On that level, we can all agree: there’s nothing quite like Avatar. It’s more an animated film that inserts a few live-action sequences than the other way around (upending the usual relationship between the real and CG); Cameron’s created world, Pandora, teems with painstaking detail, and his film paradoxically feels more alive when exploring its nonexistent, digitally rendered verdant forests than when sequestered within physically created base camp sets populated by living humans. The actors filmed in real space are so seamlessly interwoven with the CG that their existence in the frame works as a marker lending credulity to everything on screen, and as rendered in 3-D, Avatar lends digital image making a never before seen depth and tactility. Over the course of the film we’re introduced to the planet’s flora and fauna, a variety of its different biomes and geographical features (most memorably a sea of floating mountains somewhat plausibly held aloft by magnetic fields). The planet’s indigenous population, the Na’vi, a race of tall, blue-colored forest-living humanoids, has its own language (as Cameron geekily demonstrated in his Golden Globes acceptance speech), customs, and a worked through relationship to a world envisioned by its creator as wholly, literally interconnected—the Gaia we’ve been unable to establish here on Earth. Avatar’s Pandora is spectacular and stunningly believable. It’s no surprise that so many folks wish they could go there—Cameron makes it feel possible.

Even so, Cameron reminds us that he’s as much a storyteller as showman by starting Avatar off on a surprisingly intimate note. After his years spent scouring the ocean’s depths for albino shrimp and sunken ships and churning out mini-docs about his findings, you’d imagine the man would kick off his outsized return to feature filmmaking with a bang. Instead, after the 20th Century Fox logo, we’re pushed right into a helicopter shot traveling high over forests paired with Sam Worthington’s hushed voiceover discussing the sudden death of his character’s brother. I didn’t even realize the movie had started for a few seconds; folks were still trickling in from the concession stand. Thus our introduction to the most anticipated spectacular of the year comes in the form of one man’s personal musings on mortality and fate. Contrast this with something like Jurassic Park or Transformers 2, both of which use their opening moments to tease the visual bounties to come with flurries of activity and noise. Cameron doesn’t need his film to hook us: we’ve already fought for tickets, waited in line, settled in with those obnoxious 3-D glasses. He takes his time.

By this point the plot is widely known: paralyzed grunt Jake Sully (Worthington) heads to far-off planet Pandora and joins a mission to remove the planet’s inhabitants from their perch atop a store of the valuable mineral “unobtanium” (that name’s a groaner for the ages). His dead twin was a research scientist whose DNA had been paired with Na’vi genes to create a native “avatar” that he could inhabit so as to learn their culture, but also hopefully broker a diplomatic solution between mercenary-guarded human prospectors and the indigenous clans. With little preparation, Jake’s tossed into a new, strong body and a set of politics he only begins to comprehend, and, on his very first excursion with his avatar, finds himself lost, endangered, and then saved by the Na’vi, who invite him into their fold. With their tribal culture, deist beliefs, and connection to the natural environment, the Na’vi are perhaps too obvious stand-ins for Native Americans, and the threat of genocide brought on by resource scarcity and attendant greed looms large throughout the film; Avatar’s first act feels not unlike that period of The New World after John Smith is saved by Pocahontas.

Avatar so clearly prioritizes the Na’vi way of life that it’s no surprise when Jake falls not only in love with his avatar’s own mobility (making him a paraplegic is one of Cameron’s most clever narrative decisions) but also with the Na’vi people and especially the chief’s daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who radiates sexiness even though she’s never really “there”). Much of Avatar’s running time is devoted to Jake’s inculcation into Na’vi culture, and the film wisely spends less and less time with him in human form as his avatar-life becomes his preferred mode of being. Jake’s internal transition is captured via videoblogs he’s required to keep by his employers; in them, he looks directly at his audience and confesses the degree to which his human body feels strange to him, strikingly heady stuff for big budget sci-fi these days (even if, as a plot device, it feels rather tacked on). The avatar concept, the videoblogs, and the specificities of the Na’vi culture (most explicitly the fashion in which the people can use their long braids to plug into animals and trees, accessing a kind of collective unconscious memory bank) combine New Age-y mysticism and Wired Magazine technophilia; years in development Avatar is completely up to the minute. It’s the first blockbuster to capture the iPhone era, and seems wholly intended to be that. What disaffected teenager, weaned on social media systems, wouldn’t be entranced by this vision?

Make no mistake: Avatar is riddled with problems. If the use of its advanced 3-D and motion-capture technologies is unrelentingly generous (Pandora is exquisitely rendered and overstuffed with surprises) and just plain unrelenting (big-screen 3-D still tires, especially at Avatar’s epic length), the film’s politics are muddy and revenge-minded. Consider the climactic finale in which humans get their comeuppance at the hands of the planet Pandora itself. The righteous beatdown feels cathartic (especially for the left-leaning, given how Cameron betrays his surprisingly eco-progressive bent by cribbing from Greenpeace sloganeering and mocking Bush-era Iraq War on Terror lingo), until one stops to consider that the escalation of hostilities seems antithetical to his peacenik conception of the Na’vi and the interconnected Pandora; the machinery of movies here supersedes the inner workings of his world. This conclusion opens up questions of racial politics and Western guilt, ideas Cameron obviously feels more than he’s thought through. His revenge of the natives doesn’t carry the same punch as Inglourious Basterds’ Jewish vengeance climax because Tarantino provocatively dismantled real history. Even if Cameron’s heart may, on the whole, be in the right place, his displaced allegory, like his employment of Bushisms, brings to mind less a unified coherent politics than grab-bag opportunism.

Spending lots of money on movies is no guarantor of their eventual success or worth as art; there’s a reason why massive failures are as storied as massive hits, if not more so. One could try and posit Avatar’s success as a result of its marketing campaign more than its filmmaking (a debatable point; for me, I’ll take it over crassly sanctimonious awards contenders like Precious, The Lovely Bones, or Up in the Air), but as a reminder of what it was that drove people to the movies in the first place, its success is unparalleled. Even after a year of solid movie box office, there’s been a creeping sense that the big screen experience has been losing luster, that the massively budgeted studio piece has become increasingly the realm of knuckleheads when its lineage stems back to the art of D.W. Griffith. The expansion of 3-D as a viable additive to the cinematic experience is giving people more and more reason to leave home and catch movies on the big screen, and Avatar isn’t just a step forward in that direction, but an immersive, imaginative leap. It’s been a nerve-wracking few years for a movie business watching profits fall and attendance drop; Cameron, pointing to a way out from the blockbuster's crippling imaginative and technical paralysis, may have provided big movies their own avatar.