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James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Transports Man (and Movies) to a Brave New World

No discussion of Avatar would be complete without mentioning its $230 million budget and the 15 years James Cameron devoted to making it. Fairly or not, such investments raise expectations: For Cameron, who directed The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and anointed himself “King of the World” upon winning 11 Oscars for 1997’s Titanic, anything less than a masterpiece might be branded a failure.

Does Avatar look great? Indeed it does. Cameron didn’t spend the better part of two decades fine-tuning his dialogue, which often seems leaden. Instead, he spent millions perfecting the motion-capture technology and high-definition cameras he would need to create Pandora, an earth-sized moon rich in minerals and home to an alien tribe known as the Na’vi.

The blue-skinned Na’vi are a peace-loving bunch – they believe in a universal spirit that exists in all living creatures, even trees – but they refuse to surrender their lunar home to anyone, least of all the warmongering Colonel Quaritch.

Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a trigger-happy hard-ass who doesn’t speak so much as he barks, is there to secure Pandora’s precious minerals for an avaricious corporation, and if he has to smash some Na’vi skulls to get them, that suits him just fine. The good doctor Grace (Sigourney Weaver) is there to keep him in line – she prefers negotiation to shock-and-awe – but her methods require time and money, and her bosses want quick results on the cheap.

Complicating matters is Jake (Sam Worthington, of Terminator Salvation), a paraplegic ex-Marine who enlists in the corporation’s avatar program. Its purpose: Genetically altering humans to mimic the appearance of the Na’vis, infiltrate their inner circle and determine how best to exterminate them.

Jake has no qualms about the mission – he’s been relegated to the sidelines too long to pass up a taste of the action – but when he falls for a Na’vi warrior princess (Zoe Saldana), he begins to question his orders. Could mutiny be next on his agenda?

Clearly, Cameron had a lot on his mind. Avatar isn’t just a boldly imaginative fantasy – it speaks to the thoughtless destruction of earth’s natural resources and the dangers of waging war for oil. Yet what’s most remarkable about the movie is not its ideology, which the director spells out none too subtly, but the sheer audacity of his vision.

Here, Cameron has created a whole new universe, as George Lucas did in Star Wars, and it’s hard not to come away impressed. As a technical achievement, it is vividly rendered down to the last detail. But such wizardry would mean very little if Cameron’s story weren’t up to his visual standard.

Fortunately, it is. Avatar provides few surprises as Jake distances himself from Quaritch’s military machine and embraces his inner Na’vi, but his journey of self-recognition is tense and thought-provoking to the last. Clearly, the King of the World won’t be abdicating his throne anytime soon.