In 1912, a pencil-sharpener salesman named Edgar Rice Burroughs published in a short novel ‘Under the Moons of Mars’ in All-Story Magazine. Republished in longer form in 1917, as A Princess of Mars, it was the first in the Barsoom series, kickstarted the planetary romance genre, and imprinted science fiction with a set of primitive but deeply felt tropes. James Cameroon’s Avatar is nothing less than a return to the primal urges of full-blown planetary romance in the style of Burroughs, Ralph Milne Farley, Homer Eon Flint and Otis Adelbert Kline: a glorious romp through the wonders and perils of an alien world, and a love story featuring a nearly naked alien princess. If you were a fifteen year old kid living in the 1970s and grokking sf, Tarzan of the Apes, and prog rock, a glimpse of Avatar in big-screen 3D and SurroundSound would blow your everloving mind.
Let’s get the story out of the way first. It’s 2154, a mining colony on Pandora, the Earth-like moon of a gas giant orbiting Alpha Centauri-A, source of a vital mineral, unobtanium (a nice, geeky joke: we could have done with a few more). Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-Marine who volunteers to take the place of his dead twin brother as a driver of an avatar, a hybrid creature fettled up from human DNA and the DNA of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned ten-foot tall natives of Pandora. Sully is part of the science team, led by Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine, that’s using the avatars to study and negotiate with the Na’vi; after his avatar is separated from the others, Sully encounters a Na’vi female, Neytiri, and is accepted into her clan, a major scientific coup. But Sully’s loyalty is torn between the scientists and the Na’vi, and former Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, head of the colony’s security, who plans to evict the Na’vi clan from their home, which inconveniently sits on a motherlode of unobtanium. Quaritch promises Sully that if he can deal with the Na’vi, he’ll get treatment to restore use of his legs; but Sully has fallen for the Na’vi way of life, and with Neytiri . . .
Well, you get the idea. Like the pulp planetary romances, Avatar’s story is achingly simple and laid on with broad strokes. In the first half Sully gets to learn survival skills; in the second, he gets to use them; threaded through his pilgrim’s progress is a plunkingly obvious allegory about greed and uncontrolled capitalism destroying nature’s harmony, and a love story across the divide between two species. The bond between Sully and Na’vi is undeniably affecting, in parts, but it’s also in parts silly and sentimental, the characterisation and dialogue (especially Colonel Quaritch’s - GI Joe had better lines) is basic, the plot twists are utterly predictable, and the film lacks the heart and human qualities of smaller scale sf films like Moon or District 9. But what you take home from Avatar isn’t so much the story as the setting. And the setting, and its rendering, is amazing. Stunning.
There’s a nice scene near the beginning of this very long film where Sully first drives the body of his avatar, and realises that he can walk again, and breaks free from the technicians and the base and joyfully canters through a garden of native plants: that sense of freedom and awe is evoked over and again as the camera floats and zooms through Pandora’s forest. The 3D is crystal-clear and Cameron seamlessly blends live action characters, CG motion-capture characters and CG scenery, using a computer-camera system that allows him to zoom in and twist around anybody and anything. And Pandora itself is the best and most fully-detailed rendering of an alien world ever seen, a forest reimagined as a coral reef, with drifting medusa-like seeds, barracuda-like wolves, shark-like tigers, hammerheaded buffalo. . . In short, an entire, self-consistent biome packed with eye kicks and explored in beautiful and thrilling set pieces: Na’vi leading Sully through the luminescent galaxy of the night-time forest; the ascent of a chain of floating rocks to a floating mountain peak (straight from one of Roger Dean’s album covers); an aerial battle amongst those same floating mountains between helicopters and lumbering transports and a flock of warriors mounted on manta-ray dragons. . . And so on, and so on.
Sure, Cameron has spent enough money to reforest half of the Amazon Basin on a film with a by-the-numbers story that mixes tropes from ancient pulp fiction and the greatest hits from his previous work. But it also conjures, over and again, that heady, full-blown, good old-fashioned sense of wonder: it is, shamelessly, gleefully, a science fiction epic. What it isn’t, is a groundbreaking film, in the way that 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars were. But it is a major envelope-pushing advance in terms of what is now possible. Because what’s possible now, thanks to the techniques Cameron has developed, is that anything we can think of can be thrown up on the cinema screen. Think about that: anything at all.