(Hey all! Moving this week, so I’m taking a detour from the Kubrick Project to relaunch the James Cameron Project — now with pictures, captions, and a up-to-date countdown, re-ordered to accommodate the addition of Avatar. And speaking of… here it is!)
He’s King of the World. Again.
Intro: As I worked on the James Cameron Project way back in the first days of this site, Avatar was just unsubstantiated rumor and a pile of buzz words, but I always assumed there was more to the project than empty promises. I figured that no matter what he was working on, Cameron wasn’t the kind of director who had ever fell short of his hype, no matter how self-generated it turned out to be. Despite an ugly reaction to the early trailers, positive word of mouth turned Avatar into one of the biggest hits in the history of the movies and a proof of concept for the future of 3D cinema. Still, just as with Cameron’s previous megahit, Titanic, the backlash is all anybody wants to talk about anymore. It’s become fashionable to hate on Avatar, except, of course, within its core fanbase. Cameron locked up the teenage girl demographic with Titanic. He finally came back for the boys with this one.
The Movie: A disabled Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system hosting a massive human mining operation. Unfortunately for the miners and their military escorts, Pandora is already inhabited by the Na’vi, gigantic hunter-gatherers that live in the jungle. The only way to communicate with the Na’vi is by donning avatars, genetically grown Na’vi bodies that can temporarily host human minds. The avatars are meant for researchers, but Jake’s scientist brother died in an accident, and untrained Jake was asked to replace him simply because the avatar requires a DNA match.
The planet has the usual political factions. The miners are desperate for a mineral, hilariously called “unobtanium”, and will do anything to get to it. The researchers, led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to study and teach the Na’vi and do granola earthy crunchy stuff, which begs the question of how they were both invited to the same picnic in the first place. The project’s military escorts, led by mobile phallus Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), basically just want to kill stuff.
Jake gets pulled in all directions, but his Marine background keeps him loyal to Quaritch. This changes when Jake, through a complicated series of accidents and mystical portents, ends up living and training with Neytiri (the motion-captured Zoe Saldana), a princess in a major Na’vi tribe. Jake falls for Neytiri and for the whole peaceful warrior culture of the Na’vi and begins to think of life in the avatar as his real world. That is until, wouldn’t you know it, the mother of all unobtanium (really?) nodes is detected underneath the tribe’s main home. Time to choose sides, Jake!
He chooses the Na’vi, of course, but he’s too late to save their home tree, which is obliterated by Quaritch and his flying tanks. Jake survives to rally the various Na’vi tribes into a single fighting force and they take the battle to Quaritch before the soldiers can wipe out a sacred tree of souls. (It’s actually a kind of hard drive for the planet’s data retention system, which the Na’vi can access via their hair braids and… you know what? It’s fucking magic. Moving on.)
In a shocking finale, the better armed and organized military completely annihilates the primitive tribe and takes the planet’s resources for their own. OK, fine, of course the Na’vi defeat the human forces and Jake is the big hero of the battle. The humans have to leave Pandora and Jake transfers his mind permanently into his avatar, opening all sorts of questions about his lifespan and susceptibility to diseases and ability to procreate, but that nerdy crap will have to wait for the sequel! AVATAR!
The Scene: James Cameron has always excelled at building set pieces, big chunky action scenes that build to a crescendo and pack an emotional punch. Think of the reactor massacre in Aliens, or the destruction of the Cyberdyne building in Terminator 2. This is what Cameron does for a living, and he does it very well.
In Avatar, that scene is the destruction of the Na’vi home tree, a scene that cuts the knots tying the script up and sends us reeling into a huge third act. Home tree is such a vital and important part of Jake’s training that I think most people would subconsciously assume that the big final battle would have to be a race to defend it, but instead the Na’vi never stand a chance. The gunships fade in over the horizon, women and children are gassed, and the whole thing comes crashing down. And then Quaritch finishes his coffee. The scene is vintage Cameron and nearly worth the price of the ticket in 3D.
The Line: “Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees.” – Quaritch at a recruit briefing. It’s a line so bad it kind of wraps back in on itself and turns good again, mainly because it lets you know that Quaritch is an outsized personality that doesn’t care about anything – not even that he sounds like a toolbox.
The Production: The script reportedly began life as a treatment written back in Cameron’s Terminator and True Lies days, but which was shelved when Cameron decided to wait for the technology to catch up to his core idea of populating the movie with actors who didn’t exist. With the arrival of Gollum and the Robert Zemeckis motion capture films in the early 2000s, and the development of a new high-definition 3D process, Cameron felt like he finally had the tools he needed to tell his story.
Oh, and $300 million dollars. Did I mention the $300 million dollars it would also take to tell his story? With that kind of investment, the suits at Fox were understandably nervous, despite the parade of filmmakers leaving Cameron’s top secret studio proclaiming that what they had just seen would change all of filmmaking. By the time the first trailer hit the internet, buzz and hype had merged into a media deluge of daily Avatar updates and speculation, an environment that helped contribute to the chuckles and giggles that accompanied the film’s initial “giant smurfs” and “furry-friendly cat people” images.
Cameron and Fox went into damage control and smartly released a huge batch of footage in theatres on what became known as “Avatar Day.” The laughing stopped. By the time word of mouth got involved, there was no holding the movie back. Avatar hit theatres worldwide on December 16, 2009, and steamrolled for months, eventually crushing the untouchable Titanic and earning nearly $3 billion (with a ‘b’) in global box office, although it did this mostly through inflated ticket costs associated with IMAX and 3D. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars, but didn’t quite recreate Titanic‘s success there, losing most of the major categories to The Hurt Locker (directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, but that’s another Project.)
A James Cameron Film: As usual, Cameron seemingly can’t make a movie without inventing some new technology, and he did that here by housing two HD cameras in a single housing to create the best 3D image in movie history (and yes, that’s a qualified statement.) The film also features his usual strong heroine in Neytiri, a Cameron regular (Weaver), and his prevailing themes of peace with nature, and using technology as both a destructive and beneficial force (I know the primitive natives are the heroes here, but the avatar technology bridges cultures and pulls some pretty magical crap into the proceedings. Without it, and therefore Jake, the Na’vi would have been crushed.)
Lasting Impact: Still working itself out, although Avatar is likely to be a major film franchise and a big centerpiece for Fox Studios moving forward. Meanwhile, Cameron has turned snake oil salesman , traveling the tech convention circuit to proselytize his 3D technology (for which he owns the patents and stands to make gajillions) as the cure for what ails Hollywood and the rest of visual media, namely the threat of piracy. If he’s right and we’re watching 100% 3D media in 20 years, Avatar will be praised/blamed as a big part of that transition.
Reason for Ranking: The film is well crafted and a nice little throwback to the way action movies used to be made in their heyday, with clearly defined action scenes and bold archetypal characters. While there’s nothing really new here (even Cameron reportedly admits to borrowing elements from John Carter of Mars and Dances With Wolves while crafting the screenplay), there’s rarely anything new anywhere. The trick is in how well a filmmaker presents a particular story, and Avatar presents pretty damn well. That being said, the film’s critics have fairly identified some major issues, primarily with the dialogue, Cameron’s heavy-handed environmental themes, and the persistent need for a safe, Anglo hero to save the savages from themselves (something that Avatar hardly invented.)
That would have played better in the 80s, but not so much these days. I placed it above Titanic because the two films are ultimately very similar in emotional and technical achievement, but I happen to like the Avatar script better. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it doesn’t come close to touching Cameron’s two best films, both sequels. We’ll wait anxiously for Avatar 2 to change our minds.
The James Cameron Project:
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss