All That Glitters—James Cameron's 'Avatar,' Specifically—Isn't Gold

Money IsnNt Everything
And all that glitters—Avatar, specifically—isnNt gold

The money is on the screen in Avatar, James CameronNs mega-3-D, mondo-CGI, more-than-a-quarter-billion-dollar baby, and, like the Hope Diamond waved in front of your nose, the bling is almost blinding. For the first 45 minutes, INm thinking, “Metropolis!”—and wondering how to amend ballots already cast in polls of the yearNs best movies. Then the 3-D wears off, and the long second act kicks in.

Avatar is a technological wonder, 15 years percolating in King CameronNs imagination and inarguably the greatest 3-D cavalry western ever made. Too bad that western is Dances With Wolves. The movie opens brilliantly with an assembly line of weightless mercenaries disembarking at planet PandoraNs earthling (that is, American) base—a fantastic military hustle, with the paraplegic volunteer Jake (Australian actor Sam Worthington) wheeling through a sea of Jeeps, trucks and galumphing robots. Every shot is a fascinating study, thanks to the plethora of depth-complicated transparent monitors, Kindle-like devices and rearview mirrors that Cameron has positioned throughout the frame.

The Sky People, as the native Pandorans or NaNvis call them, are on a mission to strip-mine this lushly verdant planet to save their own despoiled world. As preparation, the Sky People are attempting to infiltrate the NaNvis by linking human consciousness to Pandoran avatars. Thus, all-American jarhead Jake finds himself inside a 12-foot-tall, blue-striped, yellow-eyed, flat-nosed humanoid with an elegant tail and cute little goat ears—and he can walk!

Beside himself with joy, Jake bursts out of the hospital and, before too long, finds himself alone in a mad jungle surrounded by six-armed, neon tetra lemurs; flying, purple people-eaters; hammer-headed triceratopses; and nasty, leather demon dogs. Jake is saved by the jungle girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), known in pidgin English as Pocahontas, and brought back to the NaNvi village to meet her father, the king (full-blooded Cherokee Wes Studi, here playing a good Indian). The NaNvis think investigating Jake will allow them to understand the Sky People. (Little do they know . . . heh, heh, heh.)

The Sky People are divided into hawks and doves, with Jake as a sort of double-double-agent, simultaneously reporting back to the most militant Marine meanie (Stephen Lang) as well as the tough but tender biologist (Sigourney Weaver, in full Ripley mode). The former wants him to find out “what the blue monkeys want.” The latter knows the NaNvi are ultra-green—a New Age, matriarchal, eco-friendly culture spiritually connected to Every Living Thing. (This capacity is better imagined than demonstrated to judge from the mass-swaying transubstantiation ceremony held several times beneath a cosmic weeping willow.)

Avatar seamlessly synthesizes live action, animation, performance-capture and CGI to create what is essentially a non-participatory computer game: Jurassic ParkNs menagerie running wild in The MatrixNs double eXistenZ. Upon waking up back in the lab, Jake realizes that “out there is the true world and in here is the dream,” and you know itNs time for him to go native, complete with tender blue-monkey sex (“We are mated for life”). As in a Jack Kirby comic book, the muscular, coming-atcha visuals trump the movieNs camp dialogue and corny conception—but only up to a point. JakeNs initiation rites notwithstanding, Avatar itself doesnNt reawaken until the bang-up final battle—aerial cavalry incinerating holy sites and bombing the bejesus out of the blue-monkey redskin slopes, Jake uniting the NaNvi clans with inspirational martial music. (The requisite Celtic keening is withheld until the end credits, accompanied by a Celine Dion clone singing in NaNvish.)

Long before the third act, however, the ideologically sensitive will realize that 20th Century Fox has taken a half-billion-dollar (counting PR) risk that perhaps only Rupert MurdochNs studio could afford to take. The rampaging Sky People are heavy-handedly associated with the Bush administration. They chortle over the failure of diplomacy, wage what is referred to as “some sort of shock-and-awe campaign” against the NaNvis, and goad one another with Cheney one-liners such as “We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they wonNt come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!” Worse, the viewer is encouraged to cheer when uniformed American soldiers are blown out of the sky and to root for a bunch of naked, tree-hugging aborigines led by a renegade white man on a humongous orange polka-dot bat.

Let no one call so spectacular an instance of political correctness run amok “entertaining.” I look forward to the Limbaugh-Hannity take on this grimly engaging development—which will perhaps be roguishly interpreted by Sarah Palin as the last stand of indigenous peoples (like Todd!) and women warriors against Washington bureaucrats. At least Avatar wonNt win James Cameron a Nobel Peace Prize—but, then again, it just might.

Avatar was written and directed by James Cameron; and stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Wes Studi, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver. Rated PG-13. Countywide.

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