The cinematic event of the decade is upon us. James Cameron’s Avatar arrives after frenzied anticipation—the hype around its technology, which combines live action with digital animation, has been such that even if it was even slightly off kilter, it would have been considered a monumental failure.
But Cameron’s vision is indisputable; and his bravura—boosted, of course, by a budget of an excess of $300 million—is inspiring.
Avatar is a luscious and enchanting film, powered by the utopian thought that all living beings are one. Its comment on the earth’s depleting resources and the desperate need to preserve life, water, forests and mountains to avoid apocalypse is a thought in currency at the moment. But that’s just the message.
Much of movie-making is about manipulating the viewer, held captive in a dark room. This is a much more enhanced, but more seamless kind of manipulation. Quite simply, you haven’t been captive for anything like this in your life.
At the centre of it is the Na’vi land Pandora—nature at its most surreal, but bounteous and breathtaking. There are beaked flying reptiles with multi-coloured bodies, gigantic floating mountains surrounded by hazy, white clouds; a willow tree the size of a mountain with branches that sparkle at night, and which the tribals who live in this land worship. As you enter this netherland, a mood of elation takes over. The trip never gets dull thereafter.
Some of the concepts in the film are are entirely illogical and dubious, but Cameron makes them exciting and believable just by the power of visual beauty.
Avatar unfolds sometime around 2154. The earth is on the threshold of ecological doom. The only solution is a substance called Unobtainium, found in abundance in Pandora. A fantastically high-tech American military station, boosted by big corporations, is posted on the peripheries of Pandora. The Americans, of course, want to annihilate Pandora and pluck all the Unobtainium there is. The scientific team’s mission, headed by a cigarette-smoking, high-powered biologist (Sigourny Weaver), is to create humanoids (human beings whose DNAs are manipulated to make them hybrids) that resemble the Na’vis—pale blue creatures with thin, elongated bodies, wide-set eyes and a flat nose—and let them loose in Na’vi land, to persuade the natives to leave their land.
The film takes us deep into Pandora with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former marine who is crippled by war. As Cameron surges through the creeks, plateaus, fuming water streams and twinkling bushes with Jake, the film gathers momentum and ends in a cataclysmic, morally loaded end. Jake falls in love with the Na’vi chieftain’s daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who teaches him the rules of the forest.
The story of Avatar does not have potency and the towards the end, when the American military chief, a brawny man who talks war with a raspy voice, is fighting with the last of the Na’vis—literally, the war between technology and corporation against wild nature—it begins to resemble a counterculture ‘Terminator’. The love story, much as Cameron tries to make it convincing, is hopelessly bereft of any kind of human passion that we know of.
The psychedelia—neon-lit trees and florescent leaves and bushes, resembling natural disco lights—made me question if that was just an attempt at excessive visual seduction. Nights in the this forest are like perfect settings for a children’s fairy tale. Cameron’s take on the role of science, mysticism and mythology in the world are quite simplistic: Technology is evil, science is good; corporations are evil, nature and community are good. It is also an unequivocal irony that that Cameron made a film that speaks so vociferously against technology and big corporations in an advanced digital medium that he discovered along the way, spending hundreds of millions, and that will be screened in millions of screens across the world.
It is unlike the multi-layered cynical interpretation of apocalypse by Stanley Kubrick or the mystery inherent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle-earth. Avatar is closer to the Pocahontas.
But these are minor quibbles. Ride along with Cameron into the psychedelic corners and lush valleys of Pandora. In My favourite scene in the film, Jake is about to find his own flying reptile, the vehicle with whom he will later cruise through Pandora and fight the enemy. Jake and Neytiri cross a slippery cliff to reach a valley full of huge, multi-coloured, winged creatures, squawking in unison. He will be chosen by one of them—by trying to kill him. Jake puts up a fight that almost throws him into the gorging waterfall, but he takes control, and achieves zahelu, a bonding ritual of the Na’vis that require the joining of the charged tendrils of the bird’s tails with those present at the end of his own long plaid of hair.
The man and his pet vaults headlong into the valley and cruises in the space charged with water, wind and breathtaking beauty. It’s a ride you are unlikely to forget; the best of our dreams can’t replicate Cameron’s visual imagination.
Avatar releases in theatres on Friday.