James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years. Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely “Avatar” looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange. As Cameron surges through the picture plane, brushing past tree branches, coursing alongside foaming-mouthed creatures, we may be overcome by an uncanny sense of emerging, becoming, transcending—a sustained mood of elation produced by vaulting into space. Working with a crew of thousands, Cameron has reimagined nature: the movie is set on Pandora, a distant moon with thick forests, alpine chasms, and such fantastic oddities as wooded mountains hanging in the sky. The geographical center of the movie is a giant willow tree where a tribal clan, the Na’vi, worships the connections among all living things—a dubious-sounding mystical concept that the movie manages to make exciting. In “Titanic,” Cameron turned people blue as they died in icy waters, but this time blue is the color of vibrant health: the Na’vi are a translucent pale blue, with powerful, long-waisted bodies, flat noses, and wide-set eyes. In their easy command of nature, they are meant to evoke aboriginal people everywhere. They have spiritual powers and, despite their elementary weapons—bows and arrows—real powers, too. From each one’s head emerges a long braid ending in tendrils that are alive with nerves. When the Na’vi plug their braids into similar neural cords that hang from the heads of crested, horselike animals and giant birds, they achieve zahelu, which is not, apparently, as pleasurable as sex, but somewhat more useful—the Na’vi’s thoughts govern the animals’ behavior. Cameron believes in hooking up: this world is as much a vertical experience as a horizontal one, and the many parts of it cohere and flow together. The movie is a blissful fantasy of a completely organic life.
The Na’vi’s turf is also rich with an energy-yielding mineral called Unobtainium (which is as close as Cameron comes to a joke in this movie). Eager to harvest the mineral, corporate predators, joined by heavily armed military contractors, have established a base on Pandora. They’ve been feeding people’s DNA into long, pale-blue versions of their bodies—avatars—and setting them loose among the Na’vi, where they learn their lingo and try to argue them off the land. A high-powered biologist (Sigourney Weaver), who loves the Na’vi, has been to the woods and back many times. She is followed by Jake (Sam Worthington), an ex-marine. He has withered legs, but, reconditioned as an avatar, he can spring and jump anywhere; he’s fearless, and as wild as a monkey. His job, if he can’t persuade the Na’vi to leave, is to find out enough about them so that contractors can come in and kill them. The next stage of the fable isn’t exactly a surprise: living among the Na’vi, Jake falls in love with a warrior princess, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), who looks like a painted amazon on a Milan runway. She teaches him the native ways, and protects him from the other Na’vi, who discover that he’s a spy. It’s the old story of Pocahontas and John Smith, mixed, perhaps, with the remnants of Westerns (like “Dances with Wolves”) in which a white man spends some time with the Comanche or the Sioux and then, won over, tries to defend the tribe against the advancing civilization that will annihilate it.
Science is good, but technology is bad. Community is great, but corporations are evil. “Avatar” gives off more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment. “What have we got to offer them—lite beer and bluejeans?” Jake asks. Well, actually, life among the Na’vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there’s no reality TV or fast food, but there’s no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either. But let’s not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron’s notion of aboriginal life—the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant. Nor is there much point in lingering over the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world. Relish, instead, the pterodactyls, or the flying velociraptors, or whatever they are—large beaky beasts, green with yellow reptile patches—and the bright-red flying monster with jaws that could snap an oak. Jake, like a Western hero breaking a wild horse, has to tame one of these creatures in order to prove his manhood, and the scene has a barbaric splendor. The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on! The continuity of dynamized space that he has achieved with 3-D gloriously supports his trippy belief that all living things are one. Zahelu!