So, yesterday we drove to Massachusetts for a 1:30 (CaST) showing of James Cameron's Avatar. And I think (given how many times I've said I'm not someone who can write actual film reviews) I'll just cut to the chase and say that this is a brilliant, stunning, and terrifying film. In some ways, it's a film I've been waiting my whole life to see. Not merely because Cameron and Weta have created such a convincing extraterrestrial biosphere, and not only because it speaks to my "parahuman" psyche, but because that "alien" landscape is merely one part of such a grandly sublime package. During and after the film, my head was crammed full of things I wanted to say here, and I should have written those things down, because now I can't seem to find the words. The film affected me deeply, and on a level I'm not sure I can articulate. Generally, reviews are either evaluations, arguments, or a combination of those two things. I can evaluate this film, and if I had a good deal more time at my disposal (and the requisite motivation), I could also argue why this film is not only a great film, but why it is an important film. They might even be convincing arguments for some. But I'm going to have to settle for something more to the point.
With Avatar, Cameron (and all those who worked with him) have created a film that places humanity in the role of alien invader, inverting Wells' War of the Worlds formula. Which is exactly what I was hoping to see. Indeed, I would say that Cameron inverts one of his own earlier efforts, Aliens (1986). In 2154, a joint military/corporate effort from a dying earth seeks to exploit the mineral resources of an earth-like moon circling a gas giant in a distant solar system. The problem, of course, is that a sentient race lives on the moon, one that is....well, we get into spoiler territory here, and I very much don't want to spoil this for anyone. I'm honestly not sure what to say (as I may have said above). Roger Ebert and other genuine reviewers have already said so much that needed saying about the film.
I'm not so much impressed that, with Avatar, Cameron was willing to make a film with such a strong pro-environmentalist and anti-war message. Lots of people are doing that (though none have risked this sort of budget in the process). What truly impresses me is that Cameron has made what is essentially an anti-human film. On Pandora, in the conflicts between mankind and the Na'vi, we see what we've seen on Earth for the entirety of human history. In general and with precious few exceptions, humans will go to any length to exploit Nature for short-term and short-sighted gains. And "contacts" between technological and not-so technological civilizations pretty much always end with the latter getting throttled, displaced, and often driven to the brink of extinction. Avatar says, as I have always said, that there's no reason whatsoever to think things would be any different were "we" to encounter another civilization on another planet. But there's more here than some hackneyed, naive fairy-tale of the "noble savage." At the core of this film is an ingenious sort of evolutionary surprise that gives the Na'vi a fighting chance.
I'll also say that Avatar impressed me as a profoundly pagan film, but I know that it's too easy to see what we want to see in art that we love. So I'm not going to dwell on that (though Avatar already has some Xtians in a lather for this very reason).
I could go on and on, but I won't. I will say that I thought the science was pretty decent. Sure, there are a few holes here and there, but they're nothing serious, nothing that interferes with the story. I could believe in the animals and plants I saw on Pandora, that I was seeing viable ecosystems. The creatures are as amazing and gorgeous as any fictional fauna and flora that have ever graced a screen, and I very much hope that we'll see a book from Weta Workshop like the "natural history" of Skull Island they released back in 2005, because I very much want to know more.
Go see this film. It's a damn good movie. Like The Road, It's terrible and beautiful and true. Which means that it's important.
* H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)