James “King of the World” Cameron is known for his catchphrases, and he makes another attempt at linguistic cultural relevance in “Avatar,” with the sappy-yet-sweet line “I see you.”
In the film, it refers to how our fearless leader — no, really, he’s like so fearless, you guys — Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his alien princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) can see beyond their inter-species differences and truly love each other for who they are. But the catchphrase has a more appropriate double meaning for the audience, as, for what seems like the first time, we can truly see the characters on the screen.
Much has been made of the technical sophistication of Cameron’s 3-D technology. The L.A. Times writes, “You’ve never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else.” And it all seems like media hyperbole … until you see it for yourself.
To see Avatar in 2-D would be to drive a Porsche in second gear or use an iPhone exclusively in Airplane Mode. The 3-D effects are hardly a gimmick, as they are in, say, “G-Force.” Rather, they immerse you in the world of the movie to an unprecedented extent. They allow you to suspend disbelief and insert yourself into the story, to see the film truly as it was envisioned in Cameron’s mind. You’re in the room with the characters; you’re flying along with Jake and jumping along with Neytiri. When the credits roll and Leona starts to sing, you have to remind yourself where you are and what time it is. It elevates cinema beyond “escapism” to a form of mental transportation.
That said, “Avatar” is an easy movie to hate if you want to. Several lines seem more appropriate for “Bad Boys 3” rather than a military epic fantasy set in 2150. And the plot is certainly nowhere as revolutionary as the effects. The anti-nativist parable mirrors “Pocahontas” and “Dances with Wolves.” The concept of porting one’s consciousness into another vessel has been explored in everything from “The Matrix” to this year’s “Surrogates” to “Freaky Friday.” And the general concept of naive hero entering an unimagined new world in danger, only to find themselves proclaimed as The One, is familiar to the Harry Potter generation.
The point is, there are plenty of pretentious reasons the Section Asshole will be able to hate on “Avatar.”
But, of course, all science fiction borrows from its predecessors, and Cameron doesn’t pretend otherwise, inserting a reference to “The Wizard of Oz” in the opening minutes. He reinvigorates the tools of the genre. The framework of the narrative is brilliant. The emotional force of his conception of the relationship between avatar and human must have made Joss Whedon blush, as he compared it to his version in the miserable “Dollhouse.” The plot is sharp and narratively potent.
Cameron’s brilliant narrative is brought to life by an impressive collection of obscure actors. (Smart casting by Cameron, as any A-list stars would have taken the audience out of the world, even for an instant.) Worthington delivers an excellent performance as Jake, although his chemistry with his Na’vi love doesn’t exactly sizzle. Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez stand out in supporting roles, but the cast is solid throughout. They do the talking when necessary and balance speaking and letting the lush scenery speak for itself almost perfectly.
Where “Avatar” most fails is in its attempts at political allegory. Perhaps due to the fact that Cameron spent 15 years developing the film, the political references are tired and outdated, mostly a referendum on the Bush years. The film includes references to “preemptive attacks,” “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” attacking without reliable intelligence and prioritizing expensive natural resources over human lives. Expressing this point of view is obviously valid, but it’s done with absolutely no subtlety, let alone fresh perspective. To be honest, last fall’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” approached the matter with more insight and delicacy. Let the audience members draw parallels for themselves; don’t shove it down our throats.
In the end, the hardest part of deciphering “Avatar” is separating the film from the effects. I left the theater with such a euphoric high that I immediately proclaimed it my favorite film of the year and that was probably premature. The more you think about the film, the more you begin to question its cinematic gravitas. But “Avatar” tops a more significant category: it is without a doubt the best and most memorable experience I will have in a theater this year. And maybe that’s what’s most important.