No director since Kubrick has had as great an effect on the engineering of special effects as James Cameron. In The Abyss, he developed the technique known as “liquid metal” and in Terminator 2 he perfected it. He developed the cameras and remote operated vehicles that got the underwater shots in the movie Titanic as well as in his documentary exploring the interior of the doomed wreck. For Avatar, his latest, he’s shrunk the size of 3D cameras, making them practical for live action shoots. He’s also revolutionized performance capture technology, refining it to the point where it can portray facial expressions, so what you see is an actor performing, not an animator animating. Obviously, he hasn’t done all this by himself but he’s had a hand in designing all these things. It really is amazing.

And it’s not like his films have been soulless exercises in special effects like 2012 or the Transformers films. Anyone who’s seen Aliens, The Abyss, and the first two Terminator films knows that Cameron combines his amazing effects with interesting stories, memorable characters, and first-rate acting. Throw in his love of stunts, military hardware and attitude, and what you have is Spielberg with an edge.

But there was evidence in his last outing, Titanic, that Cameron was letting his storytelling instincts atrophy. Titanic is a fairly plodding romance with no compelling characters and a simple-minded plot. Now I know it won 12 Oscars and that my opinion is in the minority, but that is my take on the film. It’s only worth seeing because of the pretty pictures.

I’m afraid that Avatar will not provide relief to those of us who fear that Cameron is slipping. The plot is a ham-fisted fable about ecology and imperialism. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a former marine who’s been paralyzed from the waist down. He volunteers to replace his twin brother, who’d been a scientist, in a project on the world of Pandora, about six light years from earth. It’s a jungle planet with a poisonous atmosphere and all kinds of nasty flora and fauna. It’s simply too difficult and dangerous for humans to operate on the surface, even with protection. The planet is being mined for a mineral called unobtanium, which provides clean plentiful energy for an Earth that desperately needs it. The big mining machines that strip off the upper layer of soil and vegetation are teleoperated. The only problem that the mining company has is that there is an intelligent indigenous population on the planet and the mining machines are nearing parts of the forest sacred to them. For PR purposes, the company employs a scientific team, led by Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigorney Weaver, to study the biology of the planet. She is also trying to negotiate with the natives, called the Na’vi, whose village lies over a big deposit of the mineral. Dr Augustine has developed a process where Na’vi and human DNA is blended to create an alien body which can be linked to a human mind. That is why the company recruited Jake for the job, even though he doesn’t have the training or education required; he can use the avatar created for his twin.

When Jake first arrives, he’s approached by the company’s head of security, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played with gung-ho machismo by Stephen Lang, to spy on the Na’vi and report on their military weaknesses.  Jake readily agrees to this, being a marine at heart. But soon he meets the Na’vi and falls in love with a princess, Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and changes his mind.

It’s all pretty straight forward and obvious, with none of the subtlety of Cameron’s best work. Jake is a noble warrior, making the tough right decisions at every turn. Dr. Augustine is a dedicated scientist, so obsessed with her work that even when she’s dying she’s worried about collecting samples. All Col. Quaritch wants is a fight. All Parker Selfridge, the manager of the mining facility, played by Giovanni Ribisi wants is a profit. And all the Na’vi want is to be able to commune with their world in blissful spiritual peace. I largely agree with the message of this movie, but even I rolled my eyes a bit at the Na’vi’s sanctimoniousness.

The performances are universally fine and the effects are jaw droppingly awesome. You should see this in a theater for that reason alone, especially in 3D.

But I just wish that James Cameron would go back to making real stories again.


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