I think if there’s one thing that’s true fans of science fiction might all agree on, it’s that we long for another world. I don’t mean an “if only things were different” other world — though that’s sometimes certainly true — but a literal ’nother world: another planet to visit, another ground to walk on, another gravity to experience, another sky to see. And that is what James Cameron has given us in Avatar: this movie is a gift to anyone who takes science fiction seriously. I really do feel as if I’ve visited the planet Pandora… and I didn’t even see the movie in IMAX, just in regular ol’ 3D. (I hope to remedy that next weekend.) It was a little bit of a letdown to come to the end of the movie and take off my 3D glasses and discover that I was still on Earth. Avatar is the closest I will ever come to visiting another planet, and it was an exhilarating trip.
No, really: I’ve been wondering whether any movie could possibly justify the eight gazillion dollars rumored to have been lavished on Avatar, but damn if every single penny isn’t up in there on the screen. And I don’t mean just in visual effects, though they are beyond stunning. This is a real world, so fully realized that surely geologists and biologists and cognitive scientists and other conceptual specialists had to have been onboard. Because all the many creatures, for instance, who populate this lush world are clearly products of their own separate evolution, evolved together and related to one another and specialized for all the available ecological niches beautifully. Because even the mindblowing physical aspects of the planet — the impossibly tall trees (impossible to our Earth-attuned eyes, at least), the gravitational anomalies — are the result of the solidly realistic facts of Pandora: its gravity is lower than ours; it orbits in the shadow of a massive gas giant (which would make things gravitationally and magnetically different). That might sound like unnecessary detail to have been heaped on, but even to minds of nonscientific bent, it lends it all a plausibility that, you’d think, couldn’t be faked. Our brains just know when things feel right, even if we don’t always understand why we feel that way. Pandora feels real.
It’s all so awesome — as in the old-fashioned sense of the word: inspiring awe — that I, at least, found it easy to forgive the fact that the story, also by Cameron (Aliens of the Deep, Ghosts of the Abyss), takes few risks: it’s a straightforward narrative the likes of which we’ve seen many times before, though it is pulled off extremely well, with just a few moments that are cheesy or obvious… and a damn few more that are absolutely stunning in how they play out here on Pandora despite their familiarity. It’s Dances with Wolves, basically — and I don’t mean that as an insult; if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington: Terminator Salvation) is the soldier going native on Pandora, a Marine who’s been paralyzed from the waist down and subsequently given the opportunity to take over a job his identical twin brother, a scientist, started, and cannot finish because of his untimely death: Inhabit a body, an avatar, cloned from the DNA of both humans and the natives, the Na’vi, and go amongst the Na’vi and learn from them. The avatar bodies are keyed to particular researchers, so Jake is the only one who can fill in for his brother.
We humans are on Pandora for all the reasons we’ve ever gone anywhere, it seems: to take what we want from this place, in spite of what the people who are already there may have to say about that. I wish that weren’t so tediously familiar, but it’s hard to imagine, unfortunately, a human future that doesn’t unfold along these lines, especially not only a century and a half into the future: if human nature can change, it’s not likely to change that quickly. So, if there’s a Na’vi village right atop a hella big cache of the, ahem, “unobtainium” the humans are keen to get their hands on, well, the natives — “savages” and “blue monkeys,” as the mining company twerp (Giovanni Ribisi: Public Enemies, Perfect Stranger) in charge likes to call them — will have to go.
Jake is exuberantly enjoying the freedom of his new Na’vi body — 11 feet tall, blue-skinned, and at least as athletic as Jake himself would have been — and learning about life among the Na’vi from a sort of warrior princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana: Star Trek, Vantage Point), who initially sees him as an ignorant child. And much that’s new in Avatar is concerned with the idea of how inculcated we all are to our ways of thinking. The scientists on the planet, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver [The Tale of Despereaux, Wall-E], inhabiting another kickass Cameron heroine), are initially skeptical of Jake, since he hadn’t been trained in using the avatar or in the Na’vi culture, both of which his brother had studied for years; the military protecting the mining colony, led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang: The Men Who Stare at Goats, Public Enemies), assume that Jake, as one of their own, will work as a double agent, gathering the intelligence that the humans need in order to undermine the natives… which Jake readily agrees to. All the many assumptions at work — including on the part of the Na’vi — are so taken for granted that no one can see past them. As Moat (CCH Pounder: Warehouse 13, Orphan), the Na’vi shaman and Neytiri’s mother, explains to Jake, “We have tried to teach Sky People [that is, the humans, of course]. It’s hard to fill a cup which is already full.”
Jake’s cup will be emptied, and refilled, and by the time the inevitable showdown between human and Na’vi occurs, yours may be, too. For the Na’vi are entirely sympathetic — Cameron created them via motion-capture-assisted CGI, with human actors supplying the performances, and they are as completely realistic as their environment; Cameron has solved the problems that had rendered organic CGI characters dead-eyed and unwatchable. Not that the Na’vi are perfect or their world a paradise; Pandora may be beautiful, but it is rife with dangers. It’s just that they’re… different, and different in ways that humans cannot even begin to conceive of until we — through Jake — become part of them.