It takes more than just gumption and chutzpa to get up on one of the world’s biggest stages and declare yourself king of the world; it takes conviction. When James Cameron did just this at the Academy Awards in 1997 after “Titanic,” it was shocking to some and bombastic to others (I’m too young to remember the occasion). What had he really done to gain the title “king of the world?” What separates him from the dozens of directors who stood in the exact same place as he had? What is the legacy of “Titanic” other than a firm position in the highest echelon of box office performance and a hefty loot on Oscar night? According to IMDb, it is now the lowest rated of the five Best Picture nominees that year. From what I understand, the movie electrified the people and was simply too popular to ignore.
Fast forward 12 years to today where James Cameron has just released “Avatar.” If he got up on national television and screamed, “I’M KING OF THE WORLD,” I just might buy it. His latest project is one fifteen years in the making, and he may have just sparked a revolution in cinema. “Avatar” is breathtaking moviemaking at its finest, with astonishing visuals that are designed to do more than just floor you. They engulf you and transport you to Pandora, a land of untold beauty complete with its own indigenous people, language, and wildlife, for an exhilarating ride and fascinating experience.
I knew the effects would be a slam dunk victory for Cameron, but I had my doubts about his ability to craft a story after “Titanic,” whose melodramatic plot I can usually summarize in one sentence (Leo and Kate have a lot of fun and the boat sinks). Much to my surprise, Cameron actually constructs a very engaging story with undertones about the dangers of imperialism. Cynics might call it the Smurf County production of “Pocahontas,” but the story still feels fresh even though it is a bit recycled. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of “Terminator Salvation” fame) is a paraplegic Marine who is torn between the two competing human forces on Pandora after he develops a special bond with the native Na’vi. The scientists, led by the sassy cigarette-smoking Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to discover how the Na’vi think in order to live in harmony with them. The military operation, commanded by the hulking Colonel Quatritch (Stephen Lang), works in tandem with the financial side of the project, run by a thundering businessman doing his best Ari Gold impersonation (Giovanni Ribisi), to figure out the best way to get their hands on the bonanza underneath the sacred tree of the Na’vi. They would prefer relocation but are not afraid to resort to subjugation if the natives prove to be a handful. While Jake tries to serve two distinctly different agendas, he becomes quite taken by the Na’vi and the way they live in cooperation with nature – and not to mention quite smitten by the Amazonian Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Soon, the two forces tugging for Jake becomes not scientists vs. military but Na’vi vs. humans.
Cameron has always been a storyteller in the most grandiose of senses, which often means that the emphasis is on the telling, not the story. There is nothing wrong with the narrative, but the real star of the film are the eye-popping special effects. The director worked for many years to retool and reinvent the motion capture technology to ensure that we are enthralled by “Avatar” as he is, and he comes through in a big way. Good things come to those who wait, and because of Cameron’s commitment to getting it right, “Avatar” soars.
The extent to which he goes to design an entire world is nothing short of amazing. The gorgeous Pandora looks like something that could only exist inside of our imagination, and to see it come to life on screen is a stunning feat. I’ll confess to never having given much thought to color palettes, but the bright neon hues of Pandora’s forests are absolutely dazzling to the eye. Just as striking are the creatures that litter the forest, and they are the icing on the delectable cake whipped up by Cameron’s ingenuity. The images are as sharp as I have ever seen, and the 3-D did not cause any of the usual headaches or eye-rubbing I usually associate with the glasses. Characters leap off the screen with an effortless beauty, grabbing and commanding your eyes’ attention.
“Avatar” isn’t just a movie; it is a full-scale experience that your visual cortex will never forget. If it is the future of cinema remains yet to be seen, but it will most certainly usher in a widespread acceptance of the motion capture technology. The movie also secures its fearless helmer a place among cinema’s greatest pioneers, and it could even reinforce his self-bestowed “king of the world” title. However, Cameron’s greatest reward will not be measured in box office millions, Rotten Tomatoes percentage points, or golden statues won in the next few months. Rather, it will be measured over the next decades in the number of cinematic boundaries eradicated and the amount of movies that acquaint us with places that we thought only existed in our dreams, achievements that would not have been possible without Cameron and “Avatar.” A /