James Cameron’s Avatar is very old wine in a dazzling new bottle. It’s almost completely hokey, but it’s also a major work, a first-class piece of big mainstream filmmaking. Cameron’s ideas may be dusty, and his dialogue may be functional at best and embarrassing at worst, but almost no other contemporary directors have his intuitive understanding of structure and fable. Yes, Avatar is made up of stories that have been told again and again, but there are stories and then there are Stories — tales that survive over the centuries, charged by Joseph Campbell’s power of myth.
Here we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine chosen to walk among the alien natives of the moon Pandora. Jake’s consciousness is inserted into an “avatar” combining the DNA of a native — a Na’vi — and his dead twin brother, who’d been studying the Na’vi for years. Jake has two agendas, science and profit: the former, personified by Sigourney Weaver as a hard-bitten scientist, wants Jake to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi; the latter, led by hissable corporate drone Giovanni Ribisi and nail-tough colonel Stephen Lang, wants a high-energy mineral and doesn’t mind killing the Na’vi to get it. Jake, of course, goes native and falls in love with the Na’vi life, not to mention with warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Cameron uses this pulpy old stuff as a launching pad for peerless world-building; coming out of the hibernation of occasional deep-sea documentaries, Cameron beats George Lucas and Peter Jackson at their own game. This director has been away from feature films for twelve years, so I’d forgotten how effortlessly taut his filmmaking is (Avatar runs north of two and a half hours but flies by), how he approaches big, operatic emotions with a refreshing lack of irony, how he stages action scenes with a mixture of tension and exhilaration. (Everyone else who’s attempted large-scale megabudget spectacles in 2009 should take a look at Avatar and be shamed out of public appearances for a year.) For all his technological breakthroughs, Cameron’s great talent is for opening the storybook and inviting us in.
I’ll go ahead and say it: Late in the film, there is an extended battle scene between the Na’vi and the American military with all their concussive firepower, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve seen in a movie since I first started reviewing them in 1986. Cameron captures war in all its exultation and horror. Sam Worthington is an amiable blank as the hero — he’s pretty much the audience’s avatar — but Zoe Saldana, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination, puts across a galaxy of moods: joy, agony, rage, passion. If Cameron had done nothing else in Avatar, he put one more great heroine on the screen.
Avatar is being shown in a variety of formats: 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D. I saw it in RealD 3D. I’m told the best way to experience it is in IMAX 3D. I’m also told it looks just as gorgeous, and is just as enveloping, in 2D. (Cameron knows what he’s doing: there are many shots and even sequences that don’t seem to use 3D much at all. He knows when to give your eyes a rest and when to punch up the 3D for maximum impact.) I’ve said before that the true test of a movie is whether it would draw you in even if it were playing on a 15-inch black-and-white TV screen. I know that I’ve happened across Cameron’s Titanic a few times on television and have been kidnapped into it for longer than I should have been. Avatar will probably work the same way.