Is Avatar the future of cinema? Probably. There has to be something to draw people away from their computers and home entertainment centers, and with television series now generally at least as good as if not better than feature films, there are fewer reasons to drive to a theater. But you'll never see anything at home like Avatar, which nonetheless holds common thematic threads going back to the beginning of the director's career.
I've liked director James Cameron's films since The Terminator in 1984. But I was distinctly under-wowed by the first clip I saw from Avatar. Of course, I was viewing it on the screen of one of my laptops. Fortunately, I realized that I was seeing only a fraction of what could be available in the highly-immersive, richly-detailed 3D world Cameron was devising.
Which merely makes all the difference.
What you've heard since the backlash subsided and Avatar came out last Friday (and swiftly emerged as a big hit) is true. To the extent that one can be on the planet Pandora while sitting in a movie theater, you are there. At times, the sense of wonder was such that I felt like a 4-year old back in the boat at Disneyland's old Jungle River ride. Of course, even then I realized that that it was a ride and not real. And with what's dubbed "performance capture" technology (through which actual human performance is transformed into the "alien") -- and this piece is about themes, not techno-geekery -- the CGI characters come fully to life.
So yes, if movies have a future, which they should, Avatar represents the future of movies. Is it the greatest movie of all time? While it's one of a kind, the answer for me is clearly no. Which doesn't mean it's not terrific, for it most assuredly is.
While the look and feel of Avatar is new, the rest of its substance is familiar. And by that I don't mean the now tired trope that it's Dances With Wolves in outer space.
Actually, it's more like Frank Herbert's Dune, which in any event predated Dances With Wolves. (Who says there are no new ideas?) A hero of heretofore undiscovered grandeur; a planet linked beneath surface appearance in a profound web of ecology; an alien woman, fierce and seductive, who challenges and inspires the hero to great heights; an indigenous civilization of far greater depth than was apparent; a rotting outsider civilization determined to strip mine a planet of its most vital resource.
With differences, to be sure. Jake Sully is no Paul Atreides, no spacefaring son of a duke but a wheelchair-bound recon Marine disabled in one of Earth's many wars. Jake's is the leading voice of Avatar, decidedly non-literary and non-intellectual, blue collar by choice, perhaps in determined contrast to his late scientist brother. Their shared genome is key to the genetically engineered Na' vi "avatar" that now only Jake can "ride."
While the basic story of Avatar bears marked similarities to other works, and is a clear departure in look and feel from other films, including Cameron's own, it is familiar in other ways.
There are common threads reaching forward from the first Terminator 25 years ago through Cameron's other films and into Avatar. There is a militant sort of anti-militarism (which still celebrates the military), a certain blue-collar sensibility (perhaps derived from Cameron's truck-driving days), a consistent techno-skepticism (driven by technophilia), an environmental concern, and very strong female characters. And, of course, spectacular action sequences.
During his days as production designer for B-movie maven Roger Corman, Cameron came up with The Terminator, and then got Hemdale Films and mini-major studio Orion Pictures to take a chance. After clearing up some amusing confusion about whether Arnold Schwarzenegger should play good guy soldier from the ruined future Kyle Reese or the relentlessly homicidal Terminator, Cameron and the former Mr. Universe -- the Canadian director and the Austrian actor -- were off and running with a tale drawing on the dangers of militarism and excessive reliance on advanced technology. Linda Hamilton, a future Mrs. Cameron, was indelible as the waitress-turned-future mother of the hope of humanity, and Michael Biehn scored as the soulfully stalwart soldier who both preserved and helped make the future.
After achieving great success with the relatively low-budget Terminator, which quickly became a cult classic, Cameron was able to make Aliens, a rapid-fire hardcore action sequel to Ridley Scott's sedately spooky Alien. He made it a military scifi spectacular, more Starship Troopers than Starship Troopers, and a suspenseful horror film. Cameron built the film around Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the first film, though the studio balked at her salary demands. With Cameron's backing, she was able to become the first million dollar actress, and turned in a classic performance as action hero/mother figure, earning a rare Best Actress Oscar nomination for a scifi performance.
Cameron ramped up the presence of the Weyland-Yutani Corp. far beyond what it was in the original, turning it into the quintessential evil megacorporation that has since become such a dominant trope in science fiction. Paul Reiser turned in a memorable performance as the yuppie corporado on the mission, Carter Burke, more than willing to sacrifice both the colonists and the foolishly gung ho Marine rescue party alike in order to bring back the unremittingly hostile and lethal alien for use in the corporation's bioweapons programs.
Aliens was both a smash hit and a critical fave, earning seven Oscar nominations, enabling Cameron to indulge his deep sea diving passion in making The Abyss. This painstakingly filmed tale of underwater oil rig workers having to contend with a somewhat paranoid Navy Seal officer -- (Michael Biehn again, not nearly so heroic as in Terminator and Aliens) driven psychotic by being underwater -- and heretofore undiscovered undersea aliens at the epicenter of a Cold War incident involving a downed ballistic missile submarine has all the Cameron elements.
Ed Harris is the heroic rig foreman whose love story with his soon-to-be-ex engineer wife, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, revives amidst the chaos. It's a terrific, and under-appreciated, underwater adventure that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief where the aliens are concerned.
While The Abyss was a success -- check for the director's cut, which makes more sense, on special edition DVDs -- it was a step back from Aliens as a film. Yet it laid the groundwork for a future maritime adventure that also ends up underwater.
There was nothing qualified about the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. You know the story. Arnold Schwarzenegger reunites with Cameron and Linda Hamilton. But this time he's not the villain but the hero. And he's not the most dangerous character in the mix.
With T2's Skynet, Cameron's themes of anti-militarism and techno-skepticism are taken to new heights, all in a film which made morphing a household word and was the most technologically advanced yet. "You have a tendency to destroy yourselves," Schwarzenegger's T-800 tells the young John Connor. In order to make war more efficient, strategic defense systems are turned over to the artificial intelligence underlying Skynet, which has more advanced plans than its operators suspect, wiping out most of the human race and wrecking the planet's environment. And Skynet's technology is based in large part on a future microprocessor salvaged from the wreckage of the first terminator sent back from the future, rendering human agency even more tangential. Yet still nefarious, as Cyberdyne, introduced in the first Terminator, has used its ill-gotten tech from the future to become a giant defense contractor.
After the massive success of T2, Cameron could do pretty much whatever he wanted. He decided to work with Schwarzenegger yet again, this time on an ultra-high tech version of a Bond film with a twist, Schwarzenegger being a classic Bond aficionado. They made what might be described as a romantic action-adventure comedy called True Lies.
As this project, based on a French film called La Totale!, came from Schwarzenegger, it doesn't have all the familiar Cameron themes. There's nothing about the environment, for example. (Ironically, as now Governor Schwarzenegger was featured at the recent UN climate summit in Copenhagen.) And the military is presented as straight up heroic, with Schwarzenegger's secret agent (whose wife thinks he's a boring computer salesman) leading the fight against Islamic jihadist terrorists trying to nuke Miami.
While Cameron's progressive politics are largely out of the movie, it does have plenty of spectacular action sequences -- out-Bonding the Bond franchise -- and a woman coming into her own (albeit psychologically tortured along the way) in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis, Schwarzenegger's cinematic wife. And it's a comedy, too, the only one in Cameron's filmography. (It's also Schwarzenegger's most talkative action role, and the only one in which the future governor of California acts in anything approaching an executive capacity. As when, for example, he calls in an air strike on a convoy carrying nuclear weapons, assuring the pilots that they can't set off the nukes. While not knowing at all if that's the case. Some may call that foreshadowing. I call it comedy.)
Then came a little film called Titanic, in which Cameron's fascination with deep sea diving met the ultimate underwater find. With another frequent Cameron actor, Bill Paxton (an early Schwarzenegger victim in The Terminator, the chronically griping Marine tech in Aliens, and the used car salesman in True Lies) as Cameron's treasure hunter stand-in, Titanic explored, naturally, the maiden voyage and sinking of the purportedly unsinkable luxury passenger liner Titanic, that great icon of pre-World War I technology and splendor. We all know the love story of blue collar stowaway Jack and feisty Rose, star-making turns for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Titanic arrogantly challenged the environment of the sea and lost.
The highest grossing film of all time around the world, it won 11 Oscars. And, most infamously, when an alternately amused and bemused Warren Beatty presented the Best Picture award to Cameron, the notably non-shy director let loose with a line from his movie: "I'm the king of the world!"
Following that, Cameron turned to developing film technology and working on documentaries, mostly on the sea. He and Schwarzenegger nearly re-teamed again for True Lies 2, but 9/11 intervened, making action films about terrorism problematic. Years ago, Schwarzenegger gleefully described one spectacular scene to me which would be a showstopper. But would also have crossed the line back then in 9/11's aftermath.
Cameron turned to television with the dystopic scifi action series Dark Angel. Set in a near-future America devastated by an electromagnetic pulse that wrecked the technological and financial base of the economy -- see what we get from relying too much on computers? -- it centered on an escapee from a genetically engineered supersoldier program.
Max Guevara (yes, the character adopted the last name from Che) was a star-making role for the young Jessica Alba. Between her appeal and the show's cyberpunk themes, Dark Angel was a hit early on. Till Fox moved it to its notorious graveyard for scifi, Friday night. Even Cameron directing the show's second season finale, entitled "Freak Nation," didn't save the series from cancellation.
Cameron continued to work on tech development, documentaries, and a movie he first wrote before he made Titanic, for which the technology needed to realize the story on screen did not yet exist.
That has turned out to be Avatar.
It's a film in which all his signature themes are in place. Anti-militarism, techno-skepticism, environmental concern, blue collar sensibility, and powerful female characters. They're all there, stronger than ever.
Another mega-corporation, following the new trend of the privatization of space -- in the real world, Virgin Galactic just unveiled the first commercial manned spacecraft this month in California -- is colonizing a forest moon orbiting a gas giant several light years away. With Earth's environment wrecked, its resources stripped, the corporation's purpose is to obtain "unobtainium."
Which is the McGuffin of the story, a substance that can somehow re-power or reinvigorate Earth. That's left vague. The name, incidentally, has inspired some hardcore snark from a number of writers, who seem blissfully unaware that the term has long been in facetious use in scientific circles to describe the critical element that is just beyond reach.
And Avatar is off and running. Australian Sam Worthington, who was fine in this year's disappointingly adequate Terminator Salvation, is good as the paraplegic ex-Marine whose consciousness is uploaded into a 10-foot tall athletic alien body. Stephen Lang, who first scored as a confused idealistic lawyer in Michael Mann's Crime Story, is transformed as the jingoistic ex-colonel out to do in the Na' vi, running a crew of mercenaries that could be from Blackwater, spouting War on Terror cliches as he goes. Michelle Rodriguez's helicopter-flying character is another of Cameron's tough chicks, this time with a heart of gold.
Sigourney Weaver impresses again as the tough and idealistic scientist (whose avatar amusingly wears a t-shirt from Stanford, Weaver's real life alma mater). This time she's not fighting the aliens.
But the real star of the film, even more than Worthington, is Zoe Saldana. Having scored earlier this year as the very assertive Uhura in the wildly successful reboot of Star Trek, Saldana could succeed Weaver as the queen of scifi if she's not careful.
Her warrior princess Neytiri is the soul of Avatar. By turns fierce, emotional, thoughtful, decisive, and soulful, Saldana delivers a breakout performance all the more impressive in that it is achieved through "performance capture." We see her only in avatar form for her character is, after all, a native of Pandora. Only an outstanding performance could make what in some hands would be an animated character come to life in such a central role, and Saldana delivers it.
And so Avatar is aloft, the latest Cameron epic, filled with the themes that have marked his films for a quarter-century. The underlying idea of Avatar -- the urge to conquer new territory in order to fulfill our greed -- isn't original, as it's the undeniable dynamic of our history. But the cinematic experience is new and a likely gamechanger.