Avatar (2009)

James Cameron thinks big. Really big. He reportedly conceived of the story for Avatar back in the 70s, long before the technology to make it even remotely existed. Since then, he has made few films, but they include some of the most influential science fiction films (The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss) of recent decades, and one of the top grossing films of all time (Titanic). Cameron has squeaked in, here in the last weeks of the decade, with his first feature film in 12 years, and he's come back with a bang.

He also thinks expensive, and has a reputation for big budgets (Avatar's was rumored to be between 200 and 300 million dollars). The thing is, you can see where the money went when you watch one of Cameron's films. He's a film techie who specializes in creating new ways of making films, and Avatar promises to revolutionize (again) digital filmmaking. The movie lives up to its promise, with gorgeous CGI, excellent and smart use of 3-D technology, and the best use of performance capture technology to date. It also might be the first anti-war anti-imperialist tree-hugging enviromentalist cowboys-and-Indians space western. I'm pretty sure it is, in fact.

The year is 2154, and Earthlings have invaded a distant planet called Pandora, a world that has the misfortune of being a rich source of unobtainium, a valuable mineral. Even more unlucky are the Na'vi, a race of tall, blue-skinned people who live in harmony with nature, and object to the strip mining of their world. You know how humans are: what they can't take by force, they take by using more force. The Na'vi have bows and arrows; the humans have heavily armed mercenaries with machine guns, hovering gunships, and mechas.

They've also got in mind to use a little deception. They've created avatars, hybrid creatures grown from human and Na'vi DNA, who look enough like the Na'vi to almost pass for the real thing (although the avatars have five fingers to the Na'vi's four -- the film is brimming with such small details). A human controls his or her Na'vi avatar from a remote, wired pod, walking among the natives in a tall, blue body.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has a Na'vi avatar, but he's also an avatar of sorts in his own right -- he's a replacement for his identical twin brother, now dead, who was meant to "pilot" the Na'vi body. Jake, unlike the other pilots, is an ex-soldier, and a paraplegic who finds his Na'vi body liberating. It allows him to walk, and jump, and run again, and also do all the things the lithe, catlike Na'vi do well. The avatars were created by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a botanist who wants to learn about the Na'vi, and the very unusual and interesting planet they live on. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the chief of security for the mining company, has other ideas: he wants Jake to infiltrate the Na'vi, all the better to destroy them. Jake throws a wrench into the colonel's genocidal plans when he goes native.

Cameron developed a new performance capture technique to create the Na'vi. Performance capture (or motion capture) uses live actors wearing sensors that track their movements, which are then used to digitally render them as animated figures. Efforts to use the technology thus far have generally failed in two important ways: the animated people fall into the Uncanny Valley (whereby human facsimiles look almost real -- but also slightly off -- the sum total being altogether eerie and disquieting), and they have dead eyes and expressionless faces, which adds to the creepiness. (Peter Jackson has used the technology to best effect thus far in the creation of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.) Avatar gets it right: no Uncanny Valley, and the faces of the Na'vi are expressive, dynamic, and alive. The overall movements of the Na'vi bodies are pretty close to perfect (the avatars are clunkier, as might be expected), and also a great leap forward. And Pandora, the beautiful jungle world, is just gorgeous: filled with bioluminescent plants and creatures, flying dragon-like beasts, little things that look like flying jellyfish, and a few carnivorous nasties lurking about among the giant ferns and flowers -- it's a glowing, shimmery, unspoiled paradise. A paradise that will be lost and despoiled if Quaritch has his way. (And worth seeing in like-being-there 3-D, or Imax 3-D, if you can.)

Cameron wrote and directed Avatar, and it is peopled by the usual types that populate his films: heartless, mercenary military and corporate guys, a couple of nerds (Joel Moore and Dileep Rao), and a tough woman, or in this case three of them, with Weaver's Augustine, Michelle Rodriguez's fighter pilot Trudy, and Zoe Saldana's Neytiri, the Na'vi woman who mentors Jake. The Na'vi are pretty clearly meant to call to mind the aboriginal peoples of Earth, who haven't done so well by colonialists. In some ways, Avatar is a straightforward (if otherworldly) cowboys vs. Indians western, only the good guys are the Indians this time. It is also entirely possible (and no doubt intentional) that the allegorical story can support an interpretation grounded in contemporary conflicts and politics. There's also a running anti-corporate theme in Cameron's canon (also found in The Abyss and Aliens), and a seriously pro-green, anti-war tendency, which doesn't stop him from staging epic battles and blowing lots of things up. Avatar isn't just a long setup for a blow 'em up payoff in the third act: you're meant to care about what happens to Pandora and the Na'vi. Avatar invests in its characters, the good and the bad, creating an engrossing story and a world worth caring about.

James Cameron has only made one movie I didn't like (True Lies). I noticed a pattern, in thinking about all the movies he's made that I do like (which would be all the other movies he's made): all of his feature films have titles that start with the letter A or T: The Terminator, Terminator 2Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, and The Abyss (a two-fer). I have no theory about why that is, although I can't help but notice the errant L in True Lies.

Cameron's a techie at heart, someone simultaneously in love with filmmaking tools and toys, and determined to elevate the art of film, to making better films through technology (maybe all those A's and T's stand for "art" and "tools"). If that sounds like a dodgy premise, he's made it work, in part because as a storyteller, he's pretty traditional, and entirely sincere. He doesn't go for highly cerebral or quirky material: he sticks with action films with blue collar heroes, and he has a taste for melodrama (hence the action-oriented but swoonily romantic Titanic, with its blue collar hero). Cameron was also influential in two developments in recent science fiction films: kickass action, and strong female leads (and combined, strong women in action films). In Aliens (1986), he turned Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) into the embodiment of fiercely protective maternity, going head to acid-drooling head with the big bad super fertile mother alien. Fierce maternity was a theme he explored in the two Terminator films he wrote and directed too: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) wasn't just mom to a kid named John Connor -- she was the mother of mankind's future savior, the kid who would save us all from the cyborg menace to come.

I am often asked, being a film critic, what my favorite movie is. I don't have a single favorite, but The Abyss (1989) is in my top five. (I'm pretty fond of Aliens too, but I'm pretty fond of the entire Alien quadrilogy, which is distinctive in that every one of the films was directed in a completely different style by a visionary and interesting director: Ridley Scott, Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.) The Abyss is set in a bottom-of-the-sea oil drilling station -- the technical novelty of the film was that it was actually filmed underwater, much of it in a seven million gallon tank at an abandoned nuclear power plant. (Cameron is an avid diver who has spent much of the last decade making deep sea documentaries.)

The Abyss stars Ed Harris (blue collar working stiff), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (hell on heels engineer) and Michael Biehn (possibly psycho Navy SEAL) as part of a crew that makes a fantastic discovery at the very, very bottom of the sea. The Abyss is another inter-genre film, a fantastic, scary, claustrophobic, panicky underwater adventure with an otherworldly twist and a complex, moving love story. The special effects are gorgeous, the plot and action are compelling, and The Abyss contains one of the most emotionally gripping love scenes (not a sex scene, but a scene of love, sacrifice, death and rebirth) in contemporary film. The movie is long (another Cameron tendency), and was hobbled, on its theatrical release, by a truncated ending -- watch the director's cut on DVD to see the much better version.