In the year 2154, the human race reach the distant planet Pandora, intent on strip-mining its lush rainforests in search of a precious mineral, an energy source for their own dying world. Crippled space marine Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) enlists in the Avatar Program, a process by which a human consciousness is downloaded into a genetically engineered body based on the inhabitants of Pandora, a race of twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned, vaguely feline aliens called the N’avi. Brilliant scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) hopes her experiment will gradually establish a greater understanding and even friendship between the two races, although her corporate and military backers have their own ideas. While on a mission in his avatar guise, Jake is stranded alone on Pandora and attacked by monsters. He is rescued by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a beautiful, courageous N’avi who, reluctantly at first, teaches him how her people live in harmony with nature. As Jake gradually sees the value in the N’avi way of life, he and Neytiri fall in love. But the ruthless Colonel Quartrich (Stephen Lang) uses Jake’s reports home to mount a full-scale invasion.
More than a decade in the making, Avatar marks James Cameron’s triumphant return to science fiction filmmaking and stakes its claim to be the ultimate 3-D movie. Though it remains an open question whether 3-D technology significantly enhances how a story is told, few will forget the mind-blowing experience of having Pandora’s wondrous flying islands with all their surreal plant-life and fantasy creatures pop-up right before your awestruck eyeballs. With this film, Cameron seems intent on making his audience genuine explorers on some distant planet, having them experience an alternative form of living, feeding them more eye-protein than eye-candy. It is a rare cinematic spectacle as intent on nourishing the soul as dazzling the senses.
Like many screen fantasists he is so enamoured of his creation that in its weaker moments, Avatar grows akin to an anthropological lecture delivered by an impatient expert, but the core love story is endearing with its allusions to everything from Pocahontas (1995) to John Carter of Mars (the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp science fiction adventures which Cameron acknowledged as an influence), and the action is as exhilarating as it gets. Evidently the onetime king of the world is an old-time hippie at heart, with his depiction of literal flower-children who worship an all-loving mother goddess-cum-sentient tree, and preaching harmonious coexistence with nature. One could easily get cynical but Cameron is savvy enough to have characters wisecrack about “listening to this tree-hugger crap”, and makes his point quite adroitly. Only the most hardened gas-guzzling, nature-hating, Fox News addict could react coldly to images of genocide and environmental devastation.
Although the satirical attacks on the Iraq war hit their target (soldiers speak of “winning hearts and minds” and the use of “shock and awe” tactics), the film stumbles slightly when drawing broad parallels with global conflicts. How likely is it the Taliban live in harmony with anything? Nevertheless, you can see what Cameron means when he maintains the film is not anti-American. The inhabitants of Earth are mentioned as having grave misgivings about soldiers mistreating the N’avi and the good guys are drawn from a winning cross-section of racial types, a celebration of American inclusiveness. Far better to look upon this as an allegory about the American West and the country’s hopes to redeem its future out among the stars. The likes of Dances with Wolves (1990) and Broken Arrow (1954) sit amongst Cameron’s grab-bag of influences which include Hinduism, the landscape of wild China (Pandora’s “Hallelujah Mountains” were inspired by the Huang Shan mountains), and the consol game Halo, while the plot echoes the overlooked CG animation Battle for Terra (2007).
Performance-wise, Sam Worthington makes for a solid, if unspectacular lead while Stephen Lang is all bristling muscle as the evil Quartrich. Typically with Cameron, the real star turns come from the women, including his delightfully nostalgic re-teaming with Sigourney Weaver in full Earth mother mode, a little closer to Diane Fossey than Ellen Ripley. As gutsy air-pilot Trudy, Michelle Rodriguez excels playing a wholly likeable character for once. Of course it is Zoë Saldana who proves most memorable of all, giving a fully-charged performance that makes a great showcase for the so-called “emotion capture” technology. If we did not believe in Neytiri, or indeed the whole N’vari race as living, breathing, and most importantly feeling beings, the whole movie would fall as flat as The Polar Express (2005) and its cast of dead-eyed CG zombies. Neytiri is a soulful, sexy, inspiring heroine and proves Cameron - who interestingly inverts the climax to his groundbreaking Aliens (1986), with a maternal alien heroine battling a monstrous human-in-a-mecha-suit - is really onto something.
Canadian director and writer responsible for some of the most successful - and expensive - films of all time. Cameron, like many before him, began his career working for Roger Corman, for whom he made his directing debut in 1981 with the throwaway Piranha 2: Flying Killers. It was his second film, The Terminator, that revealed his talents as a director of intensely exciting action, making Arnold Schwarzenegger a movie star along the way. Aliens was that rare thing, a sequel as good as the original, while if The Abyss was an overambitious flop, then 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a superbly realised action epic featuring groundbreaking use of CGI.
Cameron teamed up with Schwarzenegger for a third time for the Bond-esque thriller True Lies, before releasing Titanic on the world in 1997, which despite a decidedly mixed critical reaction quickly became the biggest grossing film of all time. His TV venture Dark Angel wasn't wildly successful, but ever keen to push back the envelope of film technology, 2003's Ghost of the Abyss is a spectacular 3D documentary exploring the wreck of the Titanic, made for I-Max cinemas. After over a decade away from fiction, his sci-fi epic Avatar was such a success that it gave him two films in the top ten highest-grossing of all time list.