The Phenomenon, Politics and Art of 'Avatar'

Let’s talk about “Avatar,” the new movie from James Cameron, the director of “Titanic,” on three levels. First, as a soon-to-be-worldwide phenomenon. Second, as a political statement. Third, as a pathbreaking techno-artistic expression.

Two out of three ain’t bad--alas, the superficial politics of the film are those of superficial Hollywood. But wait, there’s more. As we shall see, while the film’s nominal politics are on the left, the “meta-politics” are well to the right. But I am getting ahead of myself.

First, the phenomenon. “Avatar” is getting great early buzz; a picture of Zoe Saldana (OK, it ‘s a picture of Saldana’s character Neytiri, a 10-foot-tall sapphire-toned computerized representation of the actress) stood at the top of the Drudge Report earlier this week, next to the words “Oscar Bound.” And The Hollywood Reporter gave it a rave: “The movie is 161 minutes and flies by in a rush. Repeat business? You bet.” And for reasons we will get to in a moment, the film should also play well overseas.

Second, the politics. Set in the year 2154, the story is set in motion by the efforts of an evil corporation determined to stripmine the mineral resources of a distant planet, the emerald-green Pandora, no matter what the cost to Neytiri and her fellow Na’vi. The Na’vi are the tall-and-thin blue “people” on the planet, although they are clearly modeled on the noblest of Native Americans. And yet they are referred to as “blue monkeys” by the wildly unsympathetic corporate greedhead who oversees the intended rape of the planet--and the annihilation, if need be, of its inhabitants.

Into this verdant world of Pandora comes a wounded warrior, Jake Sully, who is sent by the corporation to infiltrate his way into the Na’vi through the use of a flesh-and-blood clone of the Na’vi--that is, through an avatar, which Sully controls by remote control through his own thoughts. In the computer parlance of 2009, an “avatar” is an online representation of oneself; in a century-and-a-half, the film tells us, we’ll be able to live an extra life in a another real body, seeing and living through it as if it were our own. But Sully, now a Noble Blue Giant, at least part of the time, falls in love with the Na’vi--specifically, with Neytiri, the sexiest blue beanpole any of us have ever seen. Soon, Sully has gone rogue; he leads the Na’vi in a war against the corporate plunderers.

A white man “going native.” Where have we seen that before? It’s the story of “Dances With Wolves,” for openers, along with a little bit of the old cartoon series, “Captain Planet.” And did I mention there’s a maniacal military officer as the heavy? Needless to say, this character, Colonel Quaritch, gets all the best lines in the film, and indeed Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, is so over-the-top that he is destined to develop his own cult following, as did Lee Ermey, two decades ago, for his poetically profane performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the 1987 film, “Full Metal Jacket.”

Director Cameron has thus made another film that is anti-corporate, but pro-military. As we have seen in in other Cameron films, such as “Aliens 2,” soldiers (or Marines) are portrayed as strong, tough, resourceful, and decisive. If they do bad things, it’s because they are following bad orders, not because they are inherently malevolent. The real baddies, in Cameron’s cine-scenarios, are the corporate suits and fatcats; that’s probably not an unpopular message in 2009--although some might recall that “Titanic,” released 12 years ago, displayed a distinctly populist edge; it was the rich men in that film who pushed their way on to the lifeboats, displacing women and childen.

OK, so the politics of “Avatar” are left-wing, anti-corporate and anti-imperialist. There are even some even some indirect digs at George W. Bush and Operation Iraqi Freedom. A left-leaning Hollywood movie: no surprise there. So Third Worlders will eat it up. The Iranians, for example, should love “Avatar”--if, of course, their government would let them see it, which surely won’t happen.

The surprise is the third element: the art -- and that’s the right word for it -- of “Avatar.” As they say about the best escapist movies, for two hours -- in this case, for 161 minutes -- you really believe you are somewhere else. In this instance you are transported to faraway Pandora, flying in helicopters, riding on dragons, leaping from one mile-high tree branch to another mile-high tree branch. All in 3-D. Yup, they give you the funny sunglasses. You’re darn tootin’ it’s impressive.
Cameron has worked on and off on this project for more than a decade; in so working, he has pushed the technical capacity of moviemaking to a new plateau. In the future, all action/adventure movies will be held to a higher technical standard.

With a Cameron movie, you expect shoot ‘em up action. You expect an affection, bordering on reverence, for technology, especially for guns and heavy weapons. You even expect crisply drawn characters, such as that of Sigourney Weaver, indelible as she was in the “Alien” movies, and now, too, in “Avatar.”

But what you’re not ready for, in “Avatar,” is the expert depiction of the Na’vi, utterly lifelike in their blue hugeness. Thanks to Cameron’s directorial determination, the camera, as well as the computer, can now show us things we’ve never seen before.

Moreover, “Avatar’s” visual realization of a faraway world -- a world that is somewhat like earth, except that its plant and animal life is lusher and plusher and more colorful -- is going to influence fashion and design for years to come. Indeed, the film’s liberal sprinkling of glow-in-the-dark plants -- always tasteful, in a cool-jazz kind of way -- will inspire both science and commerce.

You heard it here first: Some folks -- including some fatcats and corporations -- are going to skip past the film’s politics and focus on the visual opportunities afforded by “Avatar.” They will riff, in particular, on “Avatar’s” landscapes, translating the computer-generated imagery of the film into a real-world garden-resort. Sort of like Disneyland on steroids, although perhaps more like Disneyland on DNA. That’s right, a mega-corporation will see this film about a ruthless mega-corporation and ruthlessly apply science and engineering to create a capitalist paradise of genetic manipulation. Oh, the irony: capitalism making money out of capitalism. But wait a second: What was director Cameron’s ultimate intention? To make a cool movie, or to make money? I report, you decide.

So we come back to the “meta-politics” - -the politics above the politics -- of “Avatar.” And these meta-politics lean right, not left. What do I mean? After you get past the corporate-bashing, you see a hero -- played by Sam Worthington, a hunky up-and-comer last seen in “Terminator Salvation” -- who faces profound temptations and so must make a stark moral choice. Choosing to do the right thing, this hero proves his own superiority through manly combat. Thanks to his courageous leadership, he ends up saving the day and getting the girl. (Oh, did I give that away?) That’s not exactly handwringing liberalism. Indeed, some advanced leftist critics will inevitably complain that “Avatar” is actually racist, because the Na’vi need an outsider -- a heterosexual white male -- to save them.

But most of all, “Avatar” is a show -- a great ride. And in some new form, “Avatar” will indeed be a ride someday, a destination Xanadu like nothing you have ever seen.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor.