U.S.A. • 2009 • dir. James Cameron • 164 min. • 20th Century Fox
Cinema is the only visual art form that moves in time, so it’s natural that anticipation has long been the cornerstone of our favorite entertainments. Hithcock was the master, Spielberg inherited the gift, and sometimes nowadays an Oren Peli can stir us with it. But once in a great while, a movie comes along that performs the exceptional feat of creating delicious suspense long before the reels even arrive at the cinema.
In 1980 the anticipation for Return of the Jedi, the third and final chapter of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy, began the moment the credits rolled on The Empire Strikes Back. 18 years later, a new generation of fans bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to watch the three-minute preview for The Phantom Menace and then leave. That was November 1998; it would be seven wonderful, terrible months of speculation, hype, and general delirium before the film hit theaters (and by popular consensus became the biggest cinematic disappointment of the decade). When one follows the saga of a series, or the career of a director, or the transformation of a beloved story into film, there inevitably seems to come a point when the anticipation of the Next, if only by sheer duration, overwhelms the experience of actually witnessing the rapture when it arrives.
But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a filmmaker creates a work of such finely tuned power, an experience so audacious and visionary that despite all odds and imperfections, the monumentally-anticipated can still be transcendent. (Peter Jackson, I’m bowing in your direction.) With 12 years, a titanic amount of hype, and plenty of imperfections going against it, I am thrilled to write that James Cameron’s Avatar is such a film. It’s a blunt, lumbering behemoth, weatherworn in places, but like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, it took me far, far away, and dropped my jaw in wonder.
If you have heard anything about movies in the past three years, then you have heard the whispers that grew to a roar heralding the arrival of Avatar as a singular revolution in cinema. With a concept he devised in the 1970s and a treatment from 1996, Cameron spent seven years waiting for digital technology to catch up with his imagination. (It was none other than the CGI character Gollum in Jackson’s The Two Towers that convinced him the time had come.) It then took another five years to make the movie, using pioneering 3D virtual imagery that made the actors, outfitted with sensors and standing in mostly barren studios, appear as ten-foot-tall aliens in a jungle when seen through the camera. A skeptic when it comes to technological revolutions in cinema—as long as we’re still looking forward at a flat screen, I don’t think the experience will ever really change—I must admit I was entranced by the 3D, and impressed by the flawless textures of skin, dust, and water.
Cameron, like Stanley Kubrick before him, builds his films on technological innovations, which would seem a certain recipe for cold, impressive, and unmemorable pictures along the lines of Michael Bay. Fortunately, Cameron is also a consummate entertainer, a man who has never in 30 years lost sight of how to thrill and move his audience. And Avatar is, above all, a spectacular entertainment—a glorious, preposterous epic that may dazzle you with its imagery and pelt you with its sap, but it will not bore you.
Avatar is in more than one way a movie we’ve all seen before. It’s the story of a peaceful, worldly race called the Na’vi, lithe and striped blue like cats, who live on a planet that happens to be packed with a priceless metal which we humans have come to mine. Our entree into the story is Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who will pass through the full hero cycle as a reluctant grunt who comes to love and understand the Na’vi, and, eventually, join with them and become their savior as the humans attack their jungle home. It is indeed a cobblestone rehash of elements from older stories, most obviously Dances With Wolves and Return of the Jedi (some shots of robots lumbering through forests seem almost too familiar), but what makes it a wonder is that it knows the rhythm and flow of these stories as well as we feel we know them ourselves. The tragedy is not that this movie feels familiar, but that hero epics like this have been rehashed so poorly so many times that most filmmakers have simply given up trying, and a whole generation has grown used to movies that aim for the middle ground. Gone are the films that set out, like they all did when the cinema was new and awe-inspiring, to take our breath away and make us cower before visions of grandeur. Which is why, despite the beaten path it trods, Avatar makes us feel like children again, when the speed and color and wonder of the movies filled our imaginations.
So Avatar feels familiar, too, in the way that Titanic did: it’s an epic of outlandish emotions that hits each of its scenes like clockwork so that it evokes our buried memories of the way great movies used to make us feel. We may not be able to remember the movies or the scenes or what age we were, but we remember, intuitively, that the movies have been a place of magic, where you could fly away to another world and another life and then blink as the lights came up because you had forgotten, for a moment, who you were.
The experience of watching Avatar in 2D will no doubt be less impressive. As a film, it’s full of weak moments, missed opportunities, and clunky lines. (Q: “Why didn’t you let me die?” A: “You have a strong heart.”) It rushes through its initial scenes at the expense of suspense, and trumpets its mystical pantheism with even less tact than the old Hollywood biblical epics. Most depressing of all, after espousing the value of nature and harmony for two and a quarter hours, Cameron can’t quite get over his zeal for rock-‘em sock-‘em action, and the final confrontation devolves into a (superbly well done) rehash of the Aliens showdown, complete with giant robotic fighting suit. Woe it was to me to think that a film that aimed so high, and acheived so much, might have been bold enough to transcend its action-adventure trappings, as it does in the sweeping middle sequences with the Na’vi, and go somewhere truly meaningful.
Still, for all the ways it might have gone terribly wrong, and for all the elements it levitates to the end (supporting characters include Sigourney Weaver, aged into a cranky scientist channeling Cameron; Michelle Rodriguez as a standout pilot, Laz Alonso as a wary warrior Na’vi; and Stephen Lang as the villanous army commander, chewing into the role as if to squeeze blood from it), Avatar is a triumph. It may not conquer the world the way Titanic did—my guess is, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, it will be underappreciated for years to come—but no one can say that Cameron’s patience and toil were for naught. Like his lissom aliens, Cameron is in tune with the roots running deep beneath his audience, our buried innocence and eagerness to be swept away. If the trends of the day persist and corporate movies continue to overwhelm by volume with empty noise and postmodern smirking, then every film like this one, however long we have to wait, will feel more urgently needed than the last.