Frank Herbert's brilliant Hugo and Nebula Award-winning 1965 novel Dune owes at least some of its success to the author's fantastic mind for detail. It was Herbert's imaginative brilliance that the alien worlds of Dune existed in his head in such amazing detail, and it's his skill as a writer that he could express that detail and make those places real to us. But despite a couple valiant efforts, the book has so far defied a very compelling transfer to the screen. This is due in part, I'm sure, to its zillion-page length; no condensation can be made without leaving out so much important stuff. But it's also due to the difficulties of realizing on film these furthest flights of an author's imagination. If we can't make the totality of Dune appear real, the story just doesn't fly. (This is a problem that we don't have with the printed word as our brains will fill in the blanks very convincingly to suit us.)
Writer / director James Cameron has tackled a similar problem with his new film Avatar, though I daresay with much more success than the Dune movies. I wasn't sure what to think before seeing it. Considering the size of the undertaking--it's the most expensive film ever made, I believe--I'd heard very little about it; possibly, I was afraid, because it seemed like a movie aimed at readers of fantasy fiction. As Austin Powers would say, that kind of thing isn't my bag, baby. On the other hand, James Cameron has done enough interesting stuff that his Next Big Thing probably warrants a look-see without too much premeditation. Once again I needn't have worried.
I won't summarize the plot here as I typically do except to say that, like many epic movies, Avatar contains elements of love story and of friendships grudging and fast, and of physical violence, all tossed in a life-and-death salad. That the salad is being tossed on an alien world is Cameron's mountain to climb; that he has delivered an alien world that's breathtaking and utterly captivating--one that's really a character in the story--is the film's raison d'etre. The plotting is not weak; but the plotting here is the skeleton on which is hung the fabulous clothes that are really responsible for getting us to the show.
This movie is all about immersion. It's so epic, so grand in its vision and so sweeping in its undertaking that I daresay it deserves its own branch on the tree of movie history. Yes, like Star Wars--the movie to which I've heard others compare it. The comparison is apt not because of its outer space setting (though there's a bit of that) nor because of its mythological underpinnings (though there's plenty of that). No, it earns its spot in moviedom by telling a grand story by way of the most ambitious virtual reality immersion ever attempted in a movie.
With Avatar, James Cameron has come closer than anyone ever has to plopping a mass audience down in a rich, alien world. I saw it in a 3-D setting (using glasses with a polarizing approach rather than color differentiation) and it provided that extra ingredient that almost fools us into thinking we are somewhere else. And what a place: we're loosed in the dense jungles of an earth-like planet and surrounded by plants and creatures wonderfully natural and realistic. (The Wikipedia article says Cameron had unique 3-D cameras built specifically for this film, and the 3-D presentation clearly plays a key role, though the movie plays in regular format as well.) The humanoid creatures--called the Na'vi-- and sundry fauna take computer animation another step toward absolutely convincing presentation and movement. We're still able to tell at times that these creatures are animated and not, say, people in suits, but it gets harder and harder. Faces--an especially tricky thing to animate--are quite realistic, and backgrounds are now completely photo-realistic. The various animal lifeforms are not far behind.
One would think that with such attention to the physical world and to CG characters the small bits would be glossed over, but Cameron has lavished such attention on so many little details that we are brought further into scenes rather than observing from the outside. (Things stick with me afterward: a fantastic and brilliant night sky so different from our own--this is the very stuff of science fiction; odd-but-plausible plant and animal biology; strange-but-believable languages and idiosyncratic weapons; a full host of indigenous skills for an alien jungle, practiced by creatures you believe actually possess those skills). The scenes in the (human) army's command center are especially impressive in their bold statement about where technology is headed for things like air traffic control and remote control and tracking. This is the kind of visionary thinking that Sci-Fi so often excels at. Likewise the movie 's friendly hotshot pilot chick (played by the fetching Michelle Rodriguez) plies a very realistic cockpit, and manipulates the controls and switches like someone who's logged a lot of time in type, as we say--it all makes Luke Skywalker's flying look, well, badly faked. All these elements and so many other similar ones contribute to our immersion into the story.
There's one particular feature of the film's plot that warrants a special mention, and it relates to the film's title. My dictionary defines the word avatar as:
Cameron plays with all these definitions here. Moviegoers are introduced to the Na'vi by way of a scientific research project which has engineered a human / alien hybrid. The hybrid consists of an alien body whose brain, as it were, exists in its human "driver." In this very clever way we are able to wander among an alien civilization as one of them and explore the open ground between how we live as human beings on Earth and what life might be like for an alien race of beings. There might be a number of ways one can feasibly accomplish this task, and Cameron has hit on an inventive and viable method here.
- A manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.
- An incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea.
- Computing--a movable icon representing a person in cyberspace or virtual reality graphics.
Go see it. It has Star Wars's basic broad-strokes storyline, so it's not hard to grasp the thrust of what's going on. But the devil is in the details, and a whole lotta devils were needed for this, surely one of the year's--and the decade's--great film experiences.