The basics about Avatar have already been said: it's essentially a politically correct story of indigenous populations rising against the American military machine...only on another world, with high-tech machinery to transport our damaged, young marine hero, Jake Scully (played by a witheringly thin Sam Worthington) into a powerful, alien body on a colorful world of super spectacular graphical effects.
Which is all basically correct. Or to sum it up thusly - Avatar is a pill of politically correct revenge fantasy, wrapped in a colorful, psychedelic mushroom of graphical animation wizardry.
Which is to say that Avatar probably has more in common with Inglourious Basterds than with Dancing With Wolves or Pocahontas (though it certainly shares a zeitgeist with all three). Both Avatar and that Basterds movie imagine the underdog engaged in a violent, satisfying revenge against their oppressors (in Avatar, the Na'Vis are kind of an amalgam of indigenous peoples everywhere - 75% American Indian, but a good portion Palestinian, Druid, and Aborigine as well. In Basterds, the underdogs are just good old Jews).
But what's perhaps more interesting about Avatar to me is how it brings into focus Cameron's long but seemingly disparate career - from Aliens and Terminator through The Abyss, with a detour on the Titanic. Avatar, over a decade in the making, picks up and combines themes from all those movies - the nerdy gallantry of science from The Abyss, the primordial logic of survival of the fittest from Aliens, the implacable, unstoppable force of Terminator, and even the romance and physical joy in the face of mortality of Titanic. In a way, then, Avatar is Cameron's most realized film: a complete world where all these themes toss against each other as Jake, our hero, goes on his journey from disabled jar-head to physically imposing Aboriginal leader.
That journey is a bit predictable, and our viewing party was pretty much twenty minutes ahead of the plot the whole way through (we even predicted one of the lines - when Sam's instructor in the Avatar, Grace, goes out with the phrase "I've got to get a sample"). There's no subtly lost in the story, but then, the editing here is probably the best I've seen of any movie in 2009, so there's not a single wasted moment, either. Sam's DNA is a match for his brother, a member of a science party who transport themselves into Avatars, or created bodies able to live on the alien world of Pandora. The human scientists are able to operate these blue bodies by remote control in order to live among and interact with the native population - the Na'vis. Sam's brother has died, so Sam is recruited to take his place - Cameron takes us through the set up quickly and with breezy humor from two of my favorite actors, Sigourney Weaver and Giovani Ribisi (who plays the factory foreman who's there on Pandora to look for a valuable mineral - "unobtanium"). Ribisi's character is backed up by some pretty heavy duty military machinery, personalized in the imposing personage of Colonel Quaritch, who ends up becoming, naturally, Jake's ultimate nemesis. I'd have preferred it if they'd simply called the mineral they were all searching for "MacGuffin-anium," since that's all it is, but Cameron knows how to sweat the details, here: the data-rich consoles and desktops the science team operate clearly resemble the computers and screens in Cameron's own 3D effects shop - and both sets of machines are able to produce some pretty impressive effects.
Which brings us to the other interesting aspect of the movie: the 3D. This was personally very hard for me to watch (and probably what disappointed me most). There's no real field of vision in the 3D (the camera thoroughly drives areas of focus), so areas of the screen I usually look at were out of focus, and my eyes were constantly being forced to watch the colorful lights or bright action, when that's not how I usually view a movie. It was actually a bit painful and disorienting - especially at first. And I think Cameron intended this. In essence, by putting on the 3D glasses, we're entering our own Avatar: the avatar of Cameron's movie. (Yes, Avatar is its own Avatar.) Not to carry this too far, but this is why I disagree with those critics who say that delivering a fable about the natural world using high-tech gadgetry is disingenuous. Quite the opposite: what Cameron has done here is to Re-create the natural world using technology, the way the Avatar recreates the experience of movement for Jake. Both worlds are, actually, a kind of science fakery (although in Jake's world, he's offered the possibility of transcendence at the end).
That recreation, the dream of the movie (and the dream of Pandora), are both meant to be experienced as if they were real...just as Jake learns to experience his time with the Na'vis, we learn to experience Cameron's world of cinematic wizard on the screen. The movie wants us to fall in to the technology, to get used to the glasses and effects the way Jake gets used to his new body. In this way, then, Cameron seems to be saying that the lessons we learn from the movie are not all that different - and perhaps just as real - as those learned by his hero.
Which may be a good thing. The movie's lesson is simple - as is the experience that Jake (and we, the audience) are taken through. After being thought of only as a moron all his life, the Na'vis treat Jake as having the potential to be a man, and they challenge him to really be all he can be. There's little doubt that over this long and luxurious lesson, filled with spinning, psychedelically colored pinwheels, flying dragons, and a world whose entire nervous system is interconnected, that Jake's allegiances won't dramatically shift. The real question is whether ours will. Is this lesson that Cameron wishes to impart on the mass audience - that in our rapaciousness, our country truly damages the meaningful connections of the civilizations we destroy - is this lesson really learned by the audiences flocking to see Avatar this season?
My sense is, probably not, though maybe some are. Which to me, is a good thing. After all, some of the most beautiful and powerful lessons we ever learn are the simple ones.