After wanting to see James Cameron’s new film Avatar since its premiere in December, I finally did get to the theater this weekend, and I now understand why there is so much talk about the film (as well as why it is nominated for nine Academy Awards). Simply stated, going to see Avatar is not so much seeing a movie as it is an overwhelming visual and sensory experience. The film scores on so many levels, and the visceral and kinesthetic connections literally and figuratively transport the viewer into another world.
Some people might be tempted to identify Avatar as something else, or maybe even call it Titanic in space, but then they would be missing the whole point. Yes, we have the haunting music of the remarkable James Horner to remind us of that film, and there is a strong love story at the core of Avatar, as in Titanic; and yes, the lovers are from different worlds and have the odds stacked against them, but Cameron has taken Avatar to a deeply complex level, and the 3D experience drops the viewer into a different time and place where he or she can almost reach out and touch the detritus of an explosion, feel the pulse of an alien world, and understand the universal components involving the sacred nature of the individual spirit.
The story centers on wounded Marine Jake Sully, in a solid performance by Sam Worthington who left a powerful impression in Terminator Salvation as a machine with a soul. We see paraplegic Jake transported to the moon Pandora where he will be part of an exciting experiment originally intended for his twin brother Tom, a scientist who recently passed away. Since the twins are a genetic match, Jake is an ideal replacement in the body of an avatar, a living creation of one of the indigenous Na’vi people of Pandora.
The conflict is quickly established as Jake understands he has two jobs to accomplish. One is explained by hard as nails Colonel Miles Quaritch, played with fierce intensity by Stephen Lang. Quaritch wants Jake to infiltrate these people as a covert operative with the express purpose of bringing them down. The other job is explained by Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver as a chain-smoking scientist with a heart. She wants Jake to bond with the Na’vi, become one of them, in order to better understand them and establish a cordial relationship between them and the humans who have invaded their world.
As Jake lies in what looks like a high-tech tanning bed, his consciousness enters the avatar. The creature is twice the size of humans, with blue skin, yellow eyes, and a long mane of hair that has tendrils which can make a neural connection with all living things on Pandora. Jake is obviously ecstatic about now inhabiting a body that can walk, and his function seems to be at first providing protection to Grace and her colleagues as they explore the jungles of Pandora in their own avatar forms.
The action unfolds quickly in the dangerous world where Jake suddenly finds himself besieged by creatures big and small. He runs for his life, separating from Grace and the party and winding up alone for the night in the jungle. His would seem to be a certain death, but Jake is saved by the Na’vi princess Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana who was memorable as Uhura in last year’s new Star Trek movie. Neytiri saves him against her own better judgment because Jake appears to be blessed by the goddess Eywa, when Jake is surrounded by the Seeds of Ewya, floating creatures filled with light, indicating his inherent goodness and worthiness to the princess.
What follows is reminiscent of many fish out of water stories, especially something like Pochahantas and Captain John Smith, where the invader must win over the tribe in order to become one of them. While his mission seems duplicitous at first, we can see Jake slowly moving toward the light, finding in the Na’vi a level of tranquility and meaning that he has never known in his human life. Neytiri’s assigned by her father, the chief of the tribe, to school Jake in the ways of the people, and she becomes guide, teacher, and eventually, as one would expect, they begin to fall in love.
Viewers may be tempted to think of Cameron’s earlier work, especially the slam-bang action of Terminator and Aliens, but Cameron has transcended the action movie and elevated the sci-fi component of the genre to a new level here. Every frame of the film has gorgeous texture, a sense of meticulous arrangement, and yet it causes a displacement, jarring the viewer as Jake becomes one with his new body and in touch with his new world.
While the Na’vi are a different species, Cameron has made certain that they have recognizable traits, and these indigenous people of Pandora have a distinct culture and history that reflects aspects of some of the people living on this planet. Most of all, the essential thing is that Neytiri is beautiful enough physically and spiritually to win Jake’s (and our) heart. He connects with her, and ultimately the essence of Pandora, in unimaginable ways that uncover the deepest essence of individual integrity and spirit.
At the heart of the jungle is the Tree of Souls, a luminous giant tree that is a repository of all the Na’vi who ever lived, their evanescent voices echoing across time for those ready to accept their message. When Jake and Neytiri finally “mate” it is after they connect their tendrils to the tree. She and Jake hear the centuries unfolding, the call of the Na’vi invigorating their spirits and igniting their passion.
Their happiness will be short lived, as Quaritch eventually unleashes an assault on the jungle in an effort to secure the richest deposit of Unobtanium, an energy source that will solve all of humanity’s energy problems back on Earth, but which happens to be lodged under the site of the Na’vi village and their tree.
Those seeking the action from Cameron’s previous films will not be disappointed with the final battle, and eventually Jake in avatar form and Quaritch have the inevitable hand-to-hand combat that could be expected, with the end result not disappointing the viewers in any way. What is amazing is that these sequences are accomplished so seamlessly, the effects not getting in the way of the bloody fight to the finish between good and evil.
Despite all the elements of an epic tale being present, as in Titanic, Cameron reveals himself as a romantic at heart, with the love story being the most crucial element in Avatar, and that love is shown as transcending race, species, and all obstacles. Neytiri and Jake share a pure love that rises above all the trappings of cultural and physical limitations, thus taking the Biblical message of “God is Love” and connecting Jake to the essence of Eywa, the Mother Goddess who envelopes Neytiri and him in what is an eternal union of energy and thus spirit.
Despite the wonderfully rich 3D experience, and the surreal dreamlike flow of the film, the message Cameron sends is that love will triumph over all, even when the body dies. We are all connected, if not through tendrils in our long ponytails to the Tree of Voices, by the energy of our individual spirit and inherent goodness. For guys like Quaritch, something less pleasant is obviously waiting.
Whether or not the film succeeds in making Mr. Cameron once again "King of the World," securing him more Oscar gold, it stands as the defining work in a rather impressive career. Avatar has been so successful because it has told a timeless tale of love, of perseverance, and of good rising above evil.
The fact that all the mesmerizing 3D elements and special effects are present does not relegate the core theme to secondary status. Cameron’s Avatar is an affirmation of a spirituality connecting all of us, no matter what race or species, to one another in a profound and enduring way. That is why people are going back to see the film again and again, because in this film the message is more than the medium and has resonance that will last long after the credits roll.