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Avatar

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 12/21/09 22:00:00

"THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!"
5 stars (Awesome)

A film runs at 24 frames per second. That makes it 1,440 frames per minute, and 86,400 frames per hour. James Cameron’s Avatar is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, of which nearly 60% is computer generated…and if reports are to be believed, Cameron and his team of visual effects technicians spent anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour on every frame that has gone under the digital knife. The math of how many man-hours must have gone into creating the spectacular effects for this film is as mind-boggling as the budget of this venture, especially when converted to any currency other than the dollar. Tell you what though, I don’t remember when I last saw a film where every man-hour put in and every last dime spent was manifest and, more importantly, justified by that which transpired on screen. Quite simply put, James Cameron’s follow-up to his global money-spinning juggernaut Titanic is well worth its 12 year long wait and is indeed The Greatest Show on Earth!

Avatar takes place in the year 2154. Cameron wisely leaves the details sketchy about the status quo of planet Earth. We are introduced instead to former US Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), as he wakes up from his cryogenic slumber in a space shuttle that has carried him 4.3 light years away from Earth to Pandora, an inhabited moon of Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri star system. A multinational company called RDA has set up its mining base on Pandora to obtain a rare mineral, quite literally called, ‘unobtainium’! Some might call this simplistic, I call it simple. Cameron has never been a ‘simplistic’ filmmaker, but he’s quite decidedly been a ‘simple’ one. He’s always relied on telling simple stories, stories that facilitate his larger aim, which has always been to push the cinematic envelope as forward as possible.

Coming back to the story (and it is a bare-bones story, make no mistake), Jake has been brought to Pandora as a substitute for his twin brother in the Avatar program. The Avatar program, engineered and run by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), is an attempt to infiltrate the indigenous tribe of Pandora, the Na’vi, by creating a hybrid Na’vi avatar that can be mentally controlled in a somnific state by the human subject that the avatar shares its genetic material with. Since Jake, despite being a paraplegic, matches the same genetic setup as that of his deceased twin brother, his DNA is compatible with his brother’s avatar.

It is not just the title that derives from the Hindu text. The very premise of Jake’s omnipresence (his human form sleeps while his avatar wakes and vice-versa) and the blurring of the lines between the real world and the imagined allude to the mythology of Indra and the living world being his dream! Moreover, the title is an apt one…for an ‘Avatar’, as the Gita says, is merely a physical manifestation of the soul. The soul keeps reincarnating, until it finally finds its true ‘self’ (the Brahman-aatma) and becomes the twice-born. Jake’s physical handicap as a human being doesn’t prohibit his Na’vi avatar from running, jumping and pulling off other physical acts that he cannot as a human. But perhaps he always could, for it is his soul which governs both his human and Na’vi avatar.

Jake’s avatar is air-dropped into the heart of the Pandora-n rain-forest, where he meets the young Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Neytiri finds Jake “restless, like a child!” but senses his brave heart and introduces him to her tribe elders who welcome Jake into their clan and instruct Neytiri to teach him the Omaticaya ways of the Na’vi. This centerpiece of Avatar is where James Cameron vows you completely.

The Pandora that Cameron conceives and creates with his technicians is perhaps better than any imagined Eden! Bathed in hues of blue and tones of technicolour I never knew even existed, Pandora is a divine blend of nature and life, of flora and fauna in perfect harmony…a world untouched, pristine and altogether serene. Life-sized mimosas (touch-me-nots) that fall back unto themselves, iridescent tentacled seeds wafting across the space and shimmering blades of grass that light up like a disco-floor when you step on them…these magical vegetations seem unbelievably lifelike. One can almost breathe in the air of Pandora; I felt a soft cooling breeze, like the oxygen you smell when raindrops first fall in a monsoon season, or the fragrance of wet mud!

And then the wildlife! The Pa’li, horses of Pandora. With six legs and a bony toblerone-like mane, the Pa’li are equally majestic as their Earthly counterparts, but faster. The Angtsik, a strange fluorescent mix of rhinoceros and elephant, are herbivorous beasts who when cornered attack ferociously with what looks like a horizontal wooden log for a horn! There is a variation of the Panther as well with flaring cartilaginous plates, but nothing matches the sheer brilliance in the conceptualization of the Ikran. Ikrans are flying-horses, resembling giant-sized phoenixes. The taming of an Ikran is an important ritual passage in the life of a Na’vi. An Ikran bonds with only one Na’vi in his/her entire lifetime. Just like an untamed horse that chooses its master (generally s/he who is able to accept the gauntlet thrown by the wild horse) an Ikran chooses its Na’vi by attacking him/her. The Na’vi must try and avoid being killed, and in the process ‘connect’ (quite literally) with the Ikran…who gives up once dominated and serves its rider loyally for ever.

Jake’s avatar successfully learns the Na’vi customs, accomplishes the rites of passage and becomes one of the Na’vi. What he hadn’t bargained for is falling in love with Neytiri. The Jake and Neytiri love-story is a sensuous yet pure one. While it doesn’t have the passion and pathos of the Jack and Rose love-story of Cameron’s Titanic, the Jake and Neytiri romance is one of unspoken endearment and virginal simplicity (James Horner’s lilting and rousing theme to their romance elevating it to an even different realm!). The Titanic pair packed in an emotional sucker-punch precisely because they suffered at the hands of fate. The lovers at the center of Avatar are more ‘significant’ in comparison, if less heartbreaking, as they aren’t passive footnotes in a historical disaster. Jake’s feelings for Neytiri persuade him to go against his primary mission- that of infiltrating the Na’vi and convincing them to abandon Kelutrel, the hometree of the Na’vi (yet another Indian mythological allusion to the Kalpavriksha- the tree of life), and relocate. The Kelutrel sits above a huge deposit of unobtainium, and if Jake and Grace are unable to find a diplomatic solution, then RDA administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and his armed-outfit chief Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) wouldn’t hesitate resorting to armed hostility to invade and capture the site. Jake switches sides (he earlier mentions how everything is backward, how the dream world seems real and the real a dream!) and leads the Na’vi in a climactic battle against the humans- the people from the sky!

And what a climactic battle it is! Cameron proves yet again that nobody can match him in his absolute control over orchestrating elaborate action set-pieces. The chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the woman-in-vest-seeking-vengeance climax of Aliens…Cameron has established his credentials before, but the authoritative stamp that he embosses on the climax of Avatar is surely a debate-ending seal. Michelle Rodriguez continues the tradition of Cameron’s woman-in-vest-seeking-vengeance, but it is ultimately Cameron, and filmmaking, that is the true hero.

Cinema has always been burdened and saddled with all sorts of expectations and duties to meet and function. Movies and cinema are different, often confused and conflated. Filmmaking has many functions yes, but its primary one is to stay true to itself. A film can tell a story, but it need not necessarily always do so. One would be erring if one mistakes the lack of a story in a film as a lack of content. Cinema is not fiction or literature. It is an art form that embraces all other art forms- be it music, painting, theatre -and combines it together (not necessarily all of them) to create a new art form…the most derivative, yet highest of art form. Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong in any art? What matters is whether it’s interesting or not? Avatar, as I said before, has a very bare minimum story. The love-angle is reminiscent of The New World and The Last Of The Mohicans, and its central hero a harkening back to Dances With Wolves. Its referencing of the modern-day situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are rather clumsy and in-your-face. But the function of a film like Avatar isn’t in telling a story. The story is a device to enable a journey of imagination and cinematic possibilities. A basic story, one of clichés and familiar templates, is always advisable in such a non-script endeavour. It is consequently wise, as I mentioned earlier, that Cameron doesn’t tell you the situation on Earth. That is up to the imagination of the audience. At the rate at which we are going, in what shape must the Earth be in 2154 is an open-beginning to the film (you’ve heard of open-endings, ever seen an open-beginnning!). Cameron’s political subtext should just as well be taken as a red-herring. It’s not whether Cameron’s right or wrong…it’s whether what he does is interesting or not? What Cameron and his team do in Avatar is beyond just interesting.

The Na’vi! Cameron brings to the screen, what is perhaps the most lifelike and expressive alien-beings ever to grace the movies. These long and sinewy creatures, 10-12 feet tall, seem every bit authentic (if one could say so of alien-life). Slender, with long tails, Cameron and his technicians make the best use of MoCap (motion capture technology) to render these electric-blue beings as real as possible. Zoe Saldaña, who plays Neytiri, had to wear motion-sensors on her and act in an empty sound stage, reacting to nothing but Cameron’s explaining of his mental conception. 3D Fusion cameras allowed performance-capture which maintained and enhanced the facial expressions of the actors even after computer generated work on it. Zoe’s Neytiri, as with the Na’vi avatars of all other actors, is not a triumph of prosthetics. They are CGI rendered yes, but their expressions are genuine, real and all human. Little wonder then that by the end of the film, it is the humans who are referred to as ‘aliens’…and almost by design, it is the humans that are cardboard cutouts in this film, while the Na’vi have shades.

Slight spoiler alert!
But perhaps the saddest shade the Na'vi adopt is in the bittersweet ending when they resort to violence to defend themselves against the human invasion. The Na’vi are a peace-loving species, symbiotic with the nature that surrounds them. They do not kill, and even when they prey, they acknowledge the role of the hunted and thank and bless it. Jake finds his true-self as a Na’vi (twice-born), and leads the Na’vi into combat. I couldn’t help feeling a loss of innocence, of a ‘human’ ugliness that had made its way into and corrupted the Na’vi way of living. Cameron doesn’t shy from showing Jake’s acceptance of his role as their leader as a somewhat selfish motive. The Na’vi don’t seek him, it is he who ‘adopts’ them. Jake’s final desire to banish other humanity and continue living as the ‘ruler’ among the Na’vi destabilizes Jake’s trajectory until then which is very much in keeping with Joseph Campbell’s postulation in his seminal The Hero With A Thousand Faces that “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Jake chooses not to return to his planet, and continues to remain as a leader on Pandora. His final act reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Even if Cameron didn’t intend it, I almost sensed Jake’s Na’vi avatar turning into a Kurtz!
Spoiler over!

The Na’vi have a saying, “I see you”, which goes beyond the literal and hints at ‘seeing’ the person within for what s/he is (perhaps why the Na’vi princess is called Neytiri, which phonetically sounds similar to ‘netri’ in Hindi meaning ‘eyes’). The film ends with Jake’s avatar opening his eyes and looking straight back at the audience. Cameron, who’s championed the cause for environment earlier in his The Abyss, wants us to ‘see’…beyond the literal.

What James Cameron’s achieved in Avatar is a knocking down of filmic boundaries. Never has a case for 3D been made so effectively. Avatar provides the most immersive experience, making you dodge a gun or an arrow or a simple blade of grass on more than one occasion. The sky is literally the limit for filmmaking now. We may not see another Avatar anytime soon, until the production costs come down at least. But JC has led the way yet again, and shown the path. If this effort doesn’t deserve an Oscar, I don’t know what does. (I say this as someone who until Avatar believed that Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow should win the Oscar for The Hurt Locker.)

In retrospect, I have only one gripe with the film. I wanted it to be longer! At 160 minutes, the acts were overlapping onto each other. I missed the vast scope of Titanic. I wanted to spend more time learning about the Na’vi culture. I wanted to discover the other warrior clans. In short, I want to see the nearly 4 hour long Director’s Cut! And oh…make it 3D please!

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