For someone who's determined to reduce all experience to mechanical reproduction, James Cameron sure hates machines. This antipathy goes back to his first hit, and best film, The Terminator (1984), in which technological progress is equated with death and soulless automatons threaten the extinction of the human race. The Luddite message hasn't changed much with Avatar, though the medium has. Proclaiming itself as the next phase in the development of cinema, Cameron's new opus invests hundreds of millions in cutting-edge CGI and 3-D processes (not to mention state-of-the-art PR and marketing) for the paradoxical purpose of informing viewers that such unnatural indulgences are bad for us.
Avatar | Written and Directed by James Cameron | with Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, and Laz Alonso | Twentieth Century Fox | 150 minutes
WIN: Tickets to see Avatar.
So much for irony. Now bring on the cool creatures and gizmos and let's blow some shit up.
Far from deploring the alienation effect of artifice, Avatar celebrates passive consumption, vicarious thrills, and virtual existence. The hero is the ultimate fan boy: Jake Sully (a convincingly inarticulate Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine veteran who's offered a chance to participate in the "Avatar" program, in which humans are bonded with the "Na'vi," the indigenous hominids on the planet Pandora. No joysticks required — just enter a coffin-like pod, fall asleep, and wake up in the body of a nine-foot-tall blue-skinned noble savage that's been brewed in a tank from a fusion of your own DNA and that of an alien. Your mind enters the creature and vaults into the ultimate first-person-shooter game.
The catch? In the 22nd century, evil corporations have already despoiled Earth of all natural resources, and they now plan to do the same to the edenic Pandora. (It harbors a mother lode of something called "unobtanium" — yes, the Iraq War parallel bores me, too.) Sully and his avatar are working with a scientific team headed by curmudgeonly Dr. Grace Augustine (Aliens alumna Sigourney Weaver, chainsmoking in lieu of acting) that's trying to learn about the native animist culture in order to win the people's "hearts and minds" and so make it easier to colonize them and exploit their resources. Needless to say, the reverse happens, as the Na'vi's bond with nature (they can access the spirits of the local floral and fauna by plugging in their pigtails like hackers with a USB cable) wins over the researchers. Unfortunately, Sully is also being wooed by wicked Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who picks his brain for intel about the Na'vi's defenses in their thousand-foot-tall "Hometree." Quaritch has no patience with the candy-ass eggheads — he just want to fry the Na'vi's blue asses.
Will Semper Fi prevail over new-age awareness? What clinches the deal for Sully is Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a Na'vi babe who's the chief's daughter and has a willowy body with the color and texture of a stick of fruit-stripe gum.
What follows should not come as a surprise to anyone who's seen Dances with Wolves, Starship Troopers, Apocalypse Now, Return of the Jedi, District 9, or any of the score or so other movies (including his own, with a witty allusion to the robot-versus-alien showdown in Aliens) that Cameron has spliced together for this ersatz epic. As for the eco-twaddle about nature versus technology, that doesn't interfere with your mindless enjoyment of the spectacle as much as do the sour-looking visuals and the blurry 3-D effects. Nevertheless, Avatar might well be, as some have speculated, the future of movies — in this case, the longest, loudest (James Horner with the 3-D equivalent of a soundtrack), most expensive ad for a video game ever made.