The money is on the screen in Avatar, James Cameron’s mega-3-D, mondo-CGI, more-than-a-quarter-billion-dollar baby, and, like the Hope Diamond waved in front of your nose, the bling is almost blinding. For the first 45 minutes, I’m thinking: Metropolis!—and wondering how to amend ballots already cast in polls of the year’s best movies. Then the 3-D wears off, and the long second act kicks in.
Avatar is a technological wonder, 15 years percolating in King Cameron’s imagination and inarguably the greatest 3-D cavalry western ever made. Too bad that western is Dances With Wolves. The movie opens brilliantly with an assembly line of weightless mercenaries disembarking at planet Pandora’s earthling (that is, American) base—a fantastic military hustle, with the paraplegic volunteer Jake (Australian actor Sam Worthington) wheeling through a sea of Jeeps, trucks, and galumphing robots. Every shot is a fascinating study, thanks to the plethora of depth-complicated transparent monitors, Kindle-like devices, and rearview mirrors that Cameron has positioned throughout the frame.
The Sky People, as the native Pandorans or Na’vis call them, are on a mission to strip-mine this lushly verdant planet to save their own despoiled world. As preparation, the Sky People are attempting to infiltrate the Na’vis by linking human consciousness to Pandoran avatars. Thus, an all-American jarhead like Jake finds himself inside a 12-foot-tall, blue-striped, yellow-eyed, flat-nosed humanoid with an elegant tail and cute little goat ears—and he can walk!
Beside himself with joy, Jake bursts out of the hospital and, before too long, finds himself alone in a mad jungle surrounded by six-armed neon tetra lemurs, flying purple people eaters, hammer-headed triceratopses, and nasty leather demon dogs. Jake is saved by the jungle girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), known in pidgin English as Pocahontas, and brought back to the Na’vi village to meet her father, the king (full-blooded Cherokee Wes Studi, here playing a good Indian). The Na’vis think that investigating Jake will allow them to understand the Sky People. (Little do they know . . . heh, heh, heh.)
The Sky People are divided into hawks and doves, with Jake as a sort of double double-agent, simultaneously reporting back to the most militant Marine meanie (Stephen Lang) as well as the tough but tender biologist (Sigourney Weaver, in full Ripley mode). The former wants him to find out “what the blue monkeys want.” The latter knows that the Na’vi are ultra-green—a New Age matriarchal eco-friendly culture spiritually connected to Every Living Thing. (This capacity is better imagined than demonstrated to judge from the mass swaying transubstantiation ceremony held several times beneath a cosmic weeping willow.)
Avatar seamlessly synthesizes live action, animation, performance-capture, and CGI to create what is essentially a non-participatory computer game: Jurassic Park‘s menagerie running wild in The Matrix‘s double eXistenZ. When, waking up back in the lab, Jake realizes that “out there is the true world and in here is the dream,” you know that it’s time for him to go native, complete with tender blue-monkey sex (“We are mated for life”). As in a Jack Kirby comic book, the muscular, coming-atcha visuals trump the movie’s camp dialogue and corny conception, but only up to a point. Jake’s initiation rites notwithstanding, Avatar itself doesn’t reawaken until the bang-up final battle—aerial cavalry incinerating holy sites and bombing the bejesus out of the blue-monkey redskin slopes, Jake uniting the Na’vi clans with inspirational martial music. (The requisite Celtic keening is withheld until the end credits, accompanied by a Celine Dion clone singing in Na’vish.)
Long before the third act, however, the ideologically sensitive will realize that 20th Century Fox has taken a half-billion-dollar risk (counting PR) that perhaps only Rupert Murdoch’s studio could afford to take. The rampaging Sky People are heavy-handedly associated with the Bush administration. They chortle over the failure of diplomacy, wage what is referred to as “some sort of shock-and-awe campaign” against the Na’vis, and goad each other with Cheney one-liners like, “We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won’t come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!” Worse, the viewer is encouraged to cheer when uniformed American soldiers are blown out of the sky and instead root for a bunch of naked, tree-hugging aborigines led by a renegade white man on a humongous orange polka-dot bat.
Let no one call so spectacular an instance of political correctness run amok “entertaining.” I look forward to the Limbaugh-Hannity take on this grimly engaging development—which will perhaps be roguishly interpreted by Sarah Palin as the last stand of indigenous peoples (like Todd!) and women warriors against Washington bureaucrats. At least Avatar won’t win James Cameron a Nobel Peace Prize—but, then again, it just might.
Money isn’t everything. Despite a cast of 1,500 plastic toy figures, A Town Called Panic was probably made for less than it cost to produce 10 seconds of Avatar and is, in some ways, an even weirder, more ingrown, raucous fantasy.
Animals and people are all jumbled up in this hyperactive Belgian puppet animation—as in the central ménage of Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. The filmmakers, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, show little regard for scale and less for convention. Cowboy (Aubier) is a screeching hysteric, and Horse (Patar) is a slow-moving romantic hero who longs to play the piano and carries a torch for the local music teacher, a mare with an orange mane and sultry voice (Jeanne Balibar).
Cowboy, Indian, and Horse share a house that sinks to the center of the Earth, when Indian mistakenly orders a million times as many bricks as necessary to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday. Actually, that makes the narrative seem almost linear. A Town Called Panic, which has more strident colors and less synopsizable action than a year’s worth of comic-book adventures, embodies a sensibility that might be termed “extreme quirk.” The movie has the manic whimsy of the dollhouse scenes in Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep and is even closer to child’s play—noisy, overexcited, and very pragmatic.