We have lived long enough to witness the second coming of JC. No, not that one. The one with the shorter beard. James Cameron, that is. He can’t walk on water, but he’s bringing us the next best thing: “Avatar.”
The year is 2154. SecFor, a mega corporation, is systematically destroying vast tracts of the beautiful yet dangerous jungle moon of Pandora for its priceless mineral assets. Standing in the way of big business are the clans of the indigenous Na’vi, giant feline warriors perfectly in tune with the wondrous eco-system and able to mentally “bond” with dragon-like Banshees.
SecFor enlists paralyzed Marine Jake Sully for their Avatar programme, which involves genetically grown Na’vi controlled by humans. Headed by Doctor Grace Augustine, the Avatars interact with the real Na’vi to understand their unique culture. The head of SecFor on Pandora, Parker Selfidge, wants the Avatars to find the Na’vi’s price for giving up their sacred ground and the fortune that lies beneath it. Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch has a more sinister interest in Jake’s abilities. He wants to find the Na’vi’s weak spots in case this turns into a full-blown war.
Cameron’s epic, as high tech as it may be, has its roots firmly in boyhood fantasy. Remember standing in record shops and staring at those magical “Hawkwind” and “Yes” covers, wondering what kind of movies they’d make? Cameron brings them to spectacular life with his new 3D process. Pandora’s hopes and horrors are revealed with technique no one in their right mind could call a gimmick.
“Avatar” appeals to the inner nerd in all of us. The Avatar pilots are painted as geeks, old school R.P.G. gamers cooped up in dark rooms, throwing sixes and unravelling the mysteries of a complex fantasy world; “World of Warcraft” types happier online than they ever would be in the real world. They’re fearful of the ex-marine mercenaries, Blackwater types who are paid more than in the regular armed forces.
As a modern tale, “Avatar” couldn’t have timed its release any better. The chaotic Copenhagen Conference has depressingly bowed to the inevitable and failed dismally to reach a unanimous decision on climate change. 30,000 more U.S. and allied troops are being poured into Afghanistan in a desperate attempt to defeat the Taliban, when history is clearly against any invading power succeeding in this region.
Cameron even champions the woeful treatment of veterans wounded in action. Sully has to work for SecFor because he can’t afford the surgery that will help him walk again. Only by spying for Colonel Quaritch will he be authorised for his treatment. Sam Worthington, now the firm choice as leading man for blockbusters since his excellent performance in the average “Terminator: Salvation” and his upcoming role in the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” effortlessly handles Sully’s spiritual transition from Jarhead to freedom fighter.
A more familiar face links Cameron’s past and present. Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine is more Dian Fossey than Ellen Ripley, but her mere presence lends “Avatar” genuine science fiction weight. By raiding his previous movies, Cameron helps “Avatar” not seem so alien after his fourteen-year hiatus. The ingenious iridescent flora and fauna of Pandora is straight from “The Abyss,” and the military hardware recycled and upgraded from “Aliens.”
Some of his stock characters also return. Neytiri, the fearless female warrior of the Na’vi, is a fighter in the mould of Sarah Connor. Parker Selfidge, the slimy company man, is a watered down version of Carter Burke the executive responsible for civilians’ horrific deaths in “Aliens.” Sully’s temporary ability to use his legs when linked to his “Avatar” is reminiscent of “Strange Days.”
The 12a rating does make “Avatar” Cameron lite, a process that started way back with “T2” and has gained momentum as he has become more and more successful. He is only matched by Spielberg as king of the set piece, but whereas the beard has had a remarkably dark decade, Cameron has lost the mean streak that made “The Terminator” and “Aliens” so compelling. There is even a bad Disney-style song at the end credits of “Avatar.” Is this the same director who had Arnie wipe out an entire police station?
“Avatar” is superior entertainment, and for better or worse the immediate future of Hollywood. It is the first fully immersive 3D feature film ever made, and as such, is one for the history books. A gutsy reboot of the “Alien” franchise, however, could convince us that JC walks on water after all.