Since I was a little girl, I have loved going to the movies. That feeling of fluttery elation, of arriving to the theater in plenty of time to grab my favorite seat, guessing which trailers will precede the feature and mocking the ones that look awful, squeezing the forearm of my date in giddy anticipation and squealing under my breath, “It’s about to start!”—I wish I could bottle that feeling. Working at a movie theater didn’t lessen my enthusiasm for movies. Becoming a film critic (of sorts!) hasn’t eroded my rapture at a cinematic outing. Hell, I met my husband at a movie theater, and anyone who knows us knows how poetic that really is. I am a girl who simply LOVES the movies, and on Friday evening at the IMAX theater in Houston, Texas, James Cameron reminded me why.
I wish I could give Avatar an A+. I really do. 2 hours and 42 minutes of my life flew by in a fully dimensional pageant of color and life; I actually found myself holding my breath during action sequences and I stopped drinking my soda approximately four minutes in because I knew I’d never forgive myself if I had to go to the restroom and miss even one second of the heart-stopping spectacle.
I’m just going to get this stuff out of the way in the interest of full disclosure, and then go back to positively geeking out about a film that I fully intend to see at the IMAX again tomorrow and then at least once more, fifteen bucks and holiday budget be damned.
The script is pretty generic. It’s kind of vaguely preachy, and although vaguely preachy about topics for which I feel vaguely positive (anti-imperialism, pro-nature), it still tends to reek just a bit of Condescending White Bullshit. And Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch is such an absurd cartoon villain, I kept wondering where he kept his eyepatch and robotic hand. Dude was RIDICULOUS.
But sort of awesomely so, for that.
I’ll explain the story briefly: it’s Dances With Wolves in space. Sam Worthington (Jake Sully) is like Kevin Costner, except hot and talented, and Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) is like Mary McDonnell, except giant and blue, and Colonel Quaritch is the whole army, and Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine) is amazing, brilliant and utterly kick-ass in every possible way.
I’m rarely one who accepts style over substance when it comes to films, but believe me when I say that not one of my above complaints MATTERS AT ALL. Sitting in the audience for this cinematic monument, you can’t help but feel drunk on the unadulterated spectacle of the thing. Your eyes are rejoicing and your brain just shrugs and joins the party. The IMAX screen was built for Avatar. I was truly engrossed, encapsulated in a world that could not be more fully realized. In Pandora, Cameron created a universe that genuinely resonates. He developed a language for the indigent Na’vi, created common names as well as the Latin binomial nomenclature for each plant and animal. Pandora is breathtaking and for three hours, I felt as if I lived there.
The bioluminescence of the planet and its inhabitants, the Na’vi, is one of the most stunning visual aspects of the film. Damn. Outstanding.
Yet I found myself perhaps most astonished by the basic human faces of the actors. You guys, they didn’t look like creepy dead-eyed puppets at all!
Blurg! I bet Robert Zemeckis shook his fist in the air, all “Curses, foiled again!” upon seeing Avatar. “How does he do that? HOW THE HELL DOES HE DO THAT?!”
Well, I’ll tell you, Bob. James Cameron does it by sitting on a script for 15 years while he waits for science to catch up with his imagination. And then he hires a bunch of geniuses to invent the technology that is still lacking to bring his wild conception to life. And also he spends like half a billion dollars.
And it’s worth..
But Avatar does have more to offer than pageantry. I found parts of the story incredibly compelling. Jake and Neytiri’s romance was stirring and lovely, an authentic revelation. Sam Worthington had a far heavier load to carry on those toned shoulders here than he did for Terminator Salvation, and I bought it. His struggle to accept the reality of his handicap in the monochrome world of humanity after waking from the vivid life he lives as his avatar was heartbreaking.
And Giovanni Ribisi was pretty great as a languid little suit. I found his characterization far more plausible than that of old Colonel McGrowly. He made an excellent soulless foible for Grace’s impassioned love of science and support of the Na’vi.
What I find most striking and wonderful about this and every other Cameron story is simple: James Cameron is a true feminist. And unlike his treatise against imperialism in Avatar, his feminism never comes off as preachy or generic. It is simply a matter of fact. In Avatar, in Terminator 2, in Aliens, even in Titanic, the women are fully developed characterizations, equal in story and strength and motivation and complexity to the men he writes. I wish this were always the case in Hollywood, but in a colossal popcorn-scarfing blockbuster, it’s downright unheard of. James Cameron writes women as determined and wise and reasonable. He writes them as real. There can have been no one other than Sigourney Weaver, an actress whom I adore, to play Dr. Grace Augustine. She was simply marvelous.
Zoe Saldana played Neytiri, a warrior of the Na’vi, brave and loyal and persnickety and impatient. Her relationship with Jake grows out of her teaching him the Na’vi ways, and she is a fiercely resolute teacher. Her mother Mo’at (CCH Pounder) is the spiritual leader of the tribe, and she is wise and tenacious. And Michelle Rodriguez plays Trudy, a fearless military pilot with integrity in spades.
And those are just the main characters. The supporting cast is equally scattered with strong women on both sides of the conflict, good and bad, working their way through the background, not as if to make a point, but simply because that’s the way things are. I’m not a woman who enjoys many romantic comedies or dramas, but I get mightily tired of seeing the same weak clichés of women in horror and action films. James Cameron makes movies that *I* want to see, and he casts actresses that I respect in roles that I believe. I honestly do not have the words to convey the depth of what this means to me. The fact that I can marvel about it endlessly doesn’t speak very highly of feminist values in Hollywood, but in a film as significant and enormous as Avatar, I hope that some new directions can be forged.
Cameron is already talking about the two sequels he wants to create for Avatar, and though, much like The Matrix, a film this revelatory can only disappoint in future iterations, I look eagerly forward to my next visit to the splendor of Pandora. My next visit after tomorrow night, that is. And then at least twice after that before Avatar leaves the theater.