Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Back in 1963 the public was shocked to learn that Elizabeth Taylor's “Cleopatra” had cost  forty million dollars. “The most expensive movie ever made!!!” shrieked the scandalized tabloids. Not quite fifty years later the same tabloids claim that James Cameron's “Avatar” has cost ten times that. Now, a studio spokesperson reassures us that production and promotion together amount to no more than $387 million, and I am so relieved. As, no doubt, are you.

            Having a noted penchant for science fiction thrillers I enjoyed Cameron's early work tremendously, from the undersea wonders of “The Abyss” to the bleak nihilism of the first two “Terminator” movies. I was then one of the two dozen people on the planet who hated “Titanic,” and in the twelve years since that bloated weeper I sort of forgot about James Cameron.

            But it doesn't do to ignore madmen who will stop at nothing to achieve their vision, which is what Cameron has done with his story of an earth-size moon that orbits a distant planet, and how earth-based humans plan to rape its mineral resources over the bodies of the indigenous population.

            Cameron wrote the script for “Avatar” in 1994, and started full-time production in 2005. He says he was waiting for the technology to catch up with his ideas, and to that end he developed his own 3D camera. Up until ten years ago, 3D cameras weighed about 450 pounds, and were the size of your mom's kitchen stove. Along with Vince Pace, who had worked on “The Abyss,” Cameron developed a lightweight, easily-maneuverable high-definition camera that shoots in 3D and 2D at the same time. 

            I admit to a large helping of anticipation as I sat waiting for the program to start, as I had never seen a 3D movie, not even the campy horror films of the 50s when the glasses were made of cardboard and had cellophane lenses, one green, one red.

            The technology has far surpassed that, of course. The glasses are plastic and marginally comfortable, and though the lenses still have faint green and red tints, they don't interfere with the colors of the presentation. They do, however, reduce the luminosity of the on-screen colors, which you can tell by sneaking peeks over their tops. But Cameron, that sly boots, compensates by making the on-film colors blindingly brilliant, so they're toned down to almost normal levels through the glasses. In particular, the night-time scenes in the bio-luminescent Pandoran forest glow with a breath-taking, miraculous beauty that's worth the price of admission.

            When you watch a 3D movie for the first time it takes some getting used to. A friend of mine says that the camera picks what you're supposed to focus on, and if you don't follow it instantly you go cross-eyed. That was frequently my experience the first time I saw “Avatar,” but on my second viewing my brain was making the adjustment, and I was more gripped by the story than the technology.

Cameron was quite right to keep his story simple while we're getting used to his visual chops. His heroes are admirable and his villains are hateful, with no grey areas for doubt or questions.

            About 150 years from now, we Earthlings have discovered huge deposits of Unobtainium, a very pricey mineral, on Pandora, and have commenced strip-mining operations. Unfortunately there are sentient beings on this moon: nine-foot-tall humanoids with glowing blue skin known as the Na'vi, who are in mystical touch with every living thing on their orb. In an attempt to connect with the natives, scientist adjuncts to the private, profiteering  mining conglomerate have combined Human and Na'vi DNA to produce the Avatars, who look like the Na'vi but are controlled by the neural responses of their human counterparts.

            Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine (played by a genial Sam Worthington), travels in cryonic suspension to Pandora as a substitute for his late twin brother, a scientist with great experience of Na'vi culture, with his own  Avatar. When he arrives he's recruited by the chief of security (Stephen Lang, who gives no quarter) to serve as a spy, to gather intel on the natives and how they can be defeated. Of course Jake goes native himself, in an echo of “Dances With Wolves,” and leads his adopted people in their desperate last stand.

            The story is simple, with little plot to get in the way,  but it's less a simplistic parable than a straightforward iteration of The Hero's Journey as Joseph Campbell explained it to us. Jake is Parzival, the Guileless Fool, who finds himself lost in the forest. He doesn't understand anything the Fisher King (in this case Sigourney Weaver as the scientist) tells him, so he's remanded to the tutelage of Gornemanz, in this case a comely Na'vi female (Zoe Saldana, who was a delightful Uhura in the recent “Star Trek”).

            As with every hero, Jake learns what he needs to know just in time, and is given the tool he needs just when he needs it. When you see him flailing helplessly in the undergrowth at the beginning you can be sure that everything that attacks him will return in its proper place, but that doesn't make the final battle any less thrilling, or any less overlong.

            “Avatar” is the first big-budget, full-tilt-boogie production to be released in 3D, and I'm happy for the chance to see it as the director intended. Though the 3D effect can be gasp-producing, it can also be self-conscious and sometimes cumbersome, as when the arrows, or rockets, or monsters, come straight at you; but the beauties of Pandora make up for that.

            After the invention of film itself, the two great developments were sound and color, both of which had their critics. Cameron thinks that 3D is the next great stage of cinema, but I think it's too early to tell. My gut tells me that 3D will become standard for big effects-laden thrillers, but I think we'll have 2D for as long as the casts remain (mostly) human.