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Entry updated 1 April 2024. Tagged: Film.

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Film (2009). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners present a Lightstorm Entertainment production. Written and directed by James Cameron. Cast includes Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. Original version 162 minutes; 2010 Special Edition 170 minutes. Colour, 3D.

Cameron's first science fiction film since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), this sumptuous, gamechanging epic, a rare cinematic venture into Planetary Romance, was enormously successful. To some extent, the weight of hype made this success self-fulfilling, but Avatar's potent combination of the heroic warfare and sentimental romance from a historical epic with a gleeful plundering of the Pulp sf paintbox has undeniable popular appeal. The planet Pandora (actually a moon of a Gas Giant) is home to a humanoid but cat-like intelligent species called the Na'vi. It is also the source of an immensely valuable ore – a McGuffin shamelessly called Unobtanium, a room-temperature superconductor which produces natural sky islands by levitation in the magnetic field of the moon's primary (see Magnetism) – which has attracted rapacious settlers from Earth (see Colonization of Other Worlds). Jake Sully (Worthington), a disabled ex-marine, is a new recruit to a team seeking to establish contact with the Na'vi. In physical Avatar form, he is inducted into a local tribe, romances the tribal princess (Saldana), and learns that the Gaia-like planetary goddess is a biological superconsciousness formed from the networking of the neural systems of all native lifeforms (see Ecology). When his corporate handlers use the information he has provided in a violent campaign of clearance, he leads a successful resistance movement with the help of a handful of human defectors, and uploads his consciousness via the planetary network to reside permanently in his avatar body. The programme of scientific investigation has been barely tolerated by the military-industrial representatives running the mining operation, who see the Na'vi as subhuman. The conflict between humanitarianism and militarism (driven by capitalism and Imperialism) in the face of new species is familiar from Cameron's Aliens (1986) but is more crudely rendered here, with both company man Selfridge (Ribisi) and grizzled Colonel Quaritch (Lang) being little more than caricatures.

A clever and undeniably potent composite of sf master narratives, as well as of their own sometimes subliminal roots in epic cinema, the story draws heavily, at times uncomfortably so, on Cameron's youthful immersion in the literary sf canon, and the album artwork of the sixties and seventies – the floating islands inevitably recall Roger Dean's work for Yes. The underlying narrative dynamic of the film – confrontation with an essential alien but marvelous world – also reflects Cameron's long and acknowledged immersion in the 1939 film version of L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), from direct quotes to the colour-coded transition from the colourless "real" world to florid green Pandora. Though Cameron has been cautious on matters of intellectual property after his settlement with Harlan Ellison over the Terminator films, the premise transparently derives from Poul Anderson's widely-anthologized "Call Me Joe" (April 1957 Astounding), and the main narrative is essentially Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) in a jungle, though melded ingeniously with Ursula Le Guin's The World for World Is Forest (in Again Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976). But there is also very strong resonance with non-sf romances of colonization, especially of the Americas, with the Pocahontas narrative prominently templated, and much of the film's power derives from the retrospective synthesis of familiar narratives which had not previously seemed similar – such as Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä (1985) – into a newly prototypical monomyth of Ecology and Transcendence: unlike Baum's Dorothy, Sully opens his eyes in the last shot of the film to Oz..

Avatar is a high-stakes experiment in the emerging technologies of performance capture, 3D cinematography, and photorealistic digital animation, cannily technologizing its ambitions to convey the immersivity and surrogacy of experience, and owes its success at least as much to its experiential dimension as to the artful simplicities of its storyline. The first draft (as an 80-page "scriptment") had been written in 1994, but the project was put on hold during the making of Titanic (1997) and for most of a decade beyond, in part to wait for technologies of digital character animation to catch up with the aspiration to a completely digital alien world and characters, which even so only just passes muster: Saldana's character is impressively well rendered by performer and technicians, but the other digital characters notably less so, and the film as a whole is negatively affected by inconsistent arousing of the uncanny valley effect, in which viewers are unsettled by manufactured images that are "uncannily" – though just short of true verisimilitude – mistakable for human images. Sensationally successful at the box office, particularly on IMAX screens, Avatar displaced Cameron's own Titanic (1997) as the highest-grossing film of all time, the first sf film since Jurassic Park (1993) to head the list – though only without inflation adjustment, which would put it significantly behind Star Wars (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Two sequels were swiftly announced. [NL/ML]

see also: Cinema.

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