by Joe Steiff
James Cameron brings it home.
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The man sitting at the end of my row audibly sobbed several times during the film. One of my friends speculated that the film would make Conservatives explode. The barista at my local coffee shop said that a day after seeing the film, he actually missed Pandora, missed the connection to life it presented. Another friend, who has never particularly enjoyed (or even really been able to perceive) 3-D films, was blown away by how effectively Cameron created the three-dimensional moon. Me, not only did I not mind wearing the glasses, I actually forgot I had them on.
Let’s face it, everyone expected to be dazzled by the visuals. Even my most cynical friends are not able to negate the sheer impact of Titanic’s scale, especially in recreating the ship’s sinking. For them, and in a way, for all of us, the worry was whether Avatar’s story would hold up and make a 2 hour and 40 minute film bearable.
James Cameron is the kind of filmmaker Michael Bay longs to be. Sure, there is spectacle primarily brought to life by big effects (and both men have this part down), but Cameron seems equally concerned with character, story and emotion. Whether he is always effective in his efforts, you can see each of his films working to create a complete experience for the audience.
When he excels at combining story with camera, it can be breathtaking. Just think of Aliens. When he fails, it’s usually when the story feels too simplistic (Titanic) or overly sentimental (The Abyss, Titanic). The fact that his earlier films don’t seem to succumb to this (Terminator, Aliens or even Terminator 2) may be less a sign of someone losing some degree of control of his material and more the result of someone who is ambitious, striving to find the perfect combination of spectacle, emotion, entertainment, character, cinema and story. If that’s the case, then Avatar is Cameron’s most mature work.
For better or worse, James Cameron writes his own films. While his story structures can be a bit formulaic, all films are formulaic. It’s his dialogue where his real weaknesses as a writer can come through, and Cameron as a director of his own work does not always have the critical eye he needs to call for a rewrite. But Avatar manages to miss most of the heavy-handed blatant subtext-laden dialogue that can make an audience laugh (just watch the descent in The Abyss). The one line that comes closes, the motif “I see you,” actually makes sense within the scenes it’s spoken, and certainly for the guy at the end of my row, was emotionally potent.
As with The Abyss, Cameron has drawn from source material he initially created in his childhood, potentially dangerous stuff, since what appeals to us at 10 years old may not hold our (or more importantly, others’) interest as an adult. Thematically, the two films do resonate with each other, both in the larger questions about humanity’s arrogant violence and in the smaller motifs, such as the simple (or not so simple) intake of breath. In terms of story, Avatar most immediately recalls films like Dances with Wolves or even Braveheart. But it owes equally to prose science fiction, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern saga. Add to this the storytelling tradition exemplified by Stranger in a Strange Land, and the result is the closest Cameron has come to bringing story and cinematic language into harmony – they call cinema “visual storytelling” for a reason. This is not to say that he’s fully accomplished in all areas, and certainly there are some narrative elements or characterizations that could be more complex, but this is a finely acted and engaging cinematic story.
Sam Worthington, cast long before he wowed critics and audiences in Terminator: Salvation, firmly anchors the film with both is wheelchair-bound human marine and his exuberant ten-foot-tall blue avatar. He is ably accompanied on his journey by Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder and Joel Moore. Stephen Lang, as our primary villain, actually looks more fake than any of the blue alien race known as Na’vi. You’ll also notice some very sly references to some of Cameron’s other films in the production design, but believe it or not, these are subtle and to not intrude into the world he has created on Pandora.
Cameron has definitely created a film that tops his previous successes, at least artistically. Whether it does so financially is yet to be seen. What’s most amazing about this film is that it fully and completely transports you into another world. There was a time that it was assumed all films would do that, but over the years, it’s been surprising how few really fulfill that promise. Avatar does.
Joe Steiff teaches in the School of Media Arts at Columbia College Chicago and is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking. He has contributed to and co-edited several books in the Open Court Popular Culture and Philosophy series, including Anime, Manga and Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up?
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