BEST OF THE ’00s: AVATAR


(previously: The Fountain)

“Waitaminute… Do you mean to tell us that “Avatar” has instantly secured a place amongst the best films of the decade?”

Damn right it has! Here’s a picture that is so visionary and brilliant that it overshadows nearly every other Hollywood blockbuster that came before. There is certainly none that came close in 2009, only a handful released in the last ten years deserve to be mentioned in the same breath and even going all the way back to the emergence of the FX-heavy event movie in the mid-1970s, it’s hard to think of many that compare.

“Avatar” smartly incorporates elements from nearly all the key action/sci-fi flicks of the last 30-some years. Like “Star Wars”, it’s a world-building space opera that introduces to all kinds of imaginary creatures and landscapes. Like “Alien”, it involves scientists (one of whom is played by Sigourney Weaver in both cases) being cryogenically frozen to travel into deep space, where they run into lethal opposition. Like “Jurassic Park”, it plunges us into a primitive environment that fills us with equal parts awe and terror. Like “Starship Troopers”, it uses a conflict between humans and an interstellar species as an allegory for mankind’s desperate need to exploit, dominate and destroy. And like “The Matrix”, it explores the idea of a human mind connecting to a virtual body.

James Cameron‘s latest does all these things and improves on every one, with no offense to the undeniable achievements of Lucas, Scott, Spielberg, Verhoeven and the Wachowski. Through the last 12 years, I’ve often deplored how, post-“Titanic”, Cameron had gone off making undersea documentaries and developing new filmmaking technologies instead of making other kickass movie-movies like “Aliens” or his Schwarzenegger trilogy (“The Terminator”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, “True Lies”). Well, if that’s what it took for him to deliver “Avatar”, let him take all the time and go on all the adventures he wants from now on, the result is well worth the wait!

Now, as astonishing as the technical wizardry is in “Avatar”, it wouldn’t amount to much if it wasn’t anchored to masterful storytelling and characters we profoundly care about. And so before we get to the big show, more than half the running time is devoted to just that. We meet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound ex-Marine who, when his twin brother dies weeks before leaving for an expedition on the faraway planet of Pandora, is asked to take his place. Why? Because an avatar, i.e. a priceless genetically engineered hybrid body which allows humans to interact with the Na’vi, the native people of Pandora, has already been made for his brother, and only someone with the same DNA can control it. As for Jake’s own motivation to accept this offer, it’s simple: this is his chance to retrieve the ability to walk… run… jump… ride a “direhorse”… and even fly on the back of a banshee!

A simple stroke of genius on Cameron’s part was to have the protagonist start out as an outsider not only amongst the Na’vi, but also amongst the other members of the Avatar program. Unlike them, Jake hasn’t studied Pandora for years beforehand, so he discovers all its wonders and dangers at the same time we do. In a way, he’s our own avatar, the one through whose eyes we experience this fascinating new world. As mentioned, Cameron allows plenty of time for Jake (and us in the audience) to familiarize with and grow to love Pandora’s breathtaking vistas, its gorgeous flora, its compellingly bizarre wildlife and, of course, the Na’vi, these tall, blue-skinned, feral yet noble and wise people who live in perfect symbiosis with nature – literally (you’ll see).

Jake particularly gets attached to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a young female Na’vi who teaches him how to survive on Pandora. We’ve seen this kind of romantic relationship before, notably in stories dealing with Native Americans (“Dances with Wolves”, “The New World”), but it works splendidly here nonetheless. This is as good a time as any to point out how unbelievable the use of performance capture is in “Avatar”. During these touching scenes between Jake and Neytiri, we’re watching computer-animated characters, remember, but the technology used to capture the performances of the actors manages to convey every little emotional nuance. Sorry, Robert Zemeckis, but even though I loved your three performance capture flicks, they clearly pale in comparison to what James Cameron has achieved here. Same goes for the groundbreaking 3D cinematography, which allows us to immerse ourselves even more fully into the world of Pandora and its inhabitants. There truly never has been a movie-watching experience like this one before.

And I haven’t even told you about the payoff! You see, after we’ve thoroughly been won over by the Na’vi and learned to share their respect for their environment, that’s when the humans, who want to chase the Na’vi away from their land so that they can exploit its resources (specifically a precious mineral called unobtainium), start their big attack. Because we care about Pandora so much by then, it’s totally heartbreaking and infuriating to see it be gutted by men and their machines… And it’s all the more satisfying and exhilarating when Jake and the Na’vi strike back at the humans! That’s the thing other filmmakers should remember: what makes “Avatar” so extraordinary is not just the fact that James Cameron orchestrates some of the most exciting action sequences of all time, it’s that said action sequences are always driven by the story and the characters.

I’m almost 1000 words into this review and I feel like I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what makes it so damn good. Anyway, I suppose you get the point: “Avatar” is the best picture of 2009, one of the best films of the decade and, really, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.