Oscar can relax. The epic crowd-pleaser the Academy lusted for is here, theone to show that the geezer voters are hip to what the kids want (3-D IMAX)and what the industry needs (the kind of wowser you’ll pay to see on a big screen). James Cameron’s tone-deaf but thunderously exciting Avatar, costing a record $300 million, is just the thing to pump box-office blood into Oscar’s idiotically expanded Best Picture category (10 nominees instead ofthe usual five). Nevermind my preference for the life-sized likes of Precious, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air and An Education. They look puny next to the computerized giants at play in the fields of Lord Cameron.
Unlike hack-of-the-decade Michael Bay, who can transform anything into instant stupid, Cameron knows how to harness technology to storytelling. He’s been cooking up the plot of Avatar since childhood. The basics? Humans are bad. It’s 2154, and the Earth is dying. To survive we need a mineral called Unobtainium (a joke term popularized by engineers). To get it we travel to the alien moon of Pandora and abuse its natives. They are the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, 10-foot tall Na’vi, who hug trees but hate on intrusive humans. The Na’vi are good, in similar ways to the indigenous people that America has historically exploited. If you’re not thinking Native Americans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Cameron nudges you with allusions to Dances With Wolves and the genocidal heat behind such terms as “fight terror with terror” and “shock and awe.” Dialogue is not Cameron’s strong suit.
From the man who turned Titanic into the fattest hit in history, there has to be a love story. And just as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack fell for Kate Winslet’s Rose, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-marine on the Pandora mission, loses his heart to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na’vi princess. How does that happen? Dr. Grace Augustine (great to see Sigourney Weaver of Cameron’s iconic Aliens) and her scientific team have mixed human and Na’vi DNA to create avatars to infiltrate Pandora. Jake lies in a pod at the controls as his avatar leaps around like Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan without flaunting the giant blue penis. Props to Worthington and especially Saldana for igniting sparks, given that their scenes together are all digital (the actors wore sensors so the camera could capture their movements). How do Jake and Neytiri get it on? Oh shut up and see the damn movie because what you see is thrilling.
The computerized creation that is Pandora overflows with beauty and terror (those banshees are a wonder) that dwarves the mundane stuff where the villains, military (Stephen Lang) and corporate (Giovanni Ribisi), bluster with predictable results. The last third of the movie, a battle between the Na’vi and their human destroyers, is a groundbreaking blend of digital and live-action. OK, it’s unnerving that a movie preaching peace hits its visual peak with scenes of mass destruction. But Avatar is no Hollywood wankfest. It extends the possibilities of what movies can do. Cameron’s talent may just be as big as his dreams.