How to explain Avatar? It’s hauntingly beautiful, a masterpiece of CGI wizardry and 3-D pyrotechnics, nearly three hours of $300 million state-of-the-art filmmaking. James Cameron—he of Titanic and Terminator fame—has created a gorgeously imagined world of wise, blue humanoids, hanging mountains, empathic horses and vibrantly verdant scenery where massive, winged creatures appear to fly straight into the audience. It is both parable and sci-fi fantasy, brutal, bloody and over-the top. It’s a little bit Matrix (double lives and body pods) and a lot Dances With Wolves (white man goes native).
It’s old-school storytelling, a classic good-versus-evil battle to the death. And it’s a modern mash-up, evoking comparisons to the shock and awe of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the forced exodus of aliens in District 9 , colonialism and 21st-century corporate malfeasance.
There’s so much to take in, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Avatar is something you experience in the moment and analyze later: If you’re lucky enough to watch it in a 3-D theater—and you should try to find one—you don those retro shades and descend into a hyper-real world of intense claustrophobia and breathtaking panorama. The 3-D imagery is partner to the plot, creating an immediacy that you can’t find anywhere else in the multiplex.
It opens with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine who lost the use of his legs somewhere on the battlefield. “They can fix a spine if you’ve got the money,” he muses in a voice-over that resonates in this era of health reform debate. “But not on vet benefits. Not in this economy.” After Sully emerges from years of cryo-sleep, he floats out of the prison of his pod to discover that his identical twin brother—the scientist with a Ph.D—has been murdered. And some mysterious, suited men would like him to take his brother’s place in an equally mysterious science project in outer space. (Something about Sully possessing an identical genome.) “I’d like to talk to you about a fresh start in a new world,” one of the suited drones tells him. “You could make a difference.” (Cameron’s dialogue, it must be noted, is nowhere near as graceful as his imagery.)
The notion of making a difference appeals—“All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for”—so Sully takes off for Pandora, a planet populated by the Na’Vi, blue-skinned, long-tailed Amazons who wield a mean arrow. “You’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re in Pandora…,” says Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a buff and gruff officer tells his crew of arriving soldiers, “If there’s a hell, you might want to go there—for R&R.”
But Sully isn’t destined for the battlefield. He’s to be stationed with project Avatar, overseen by a hard-bitten scientist with a heart-of-gold, Dr. Grace Augustine, (Sigourney Weaver). There. he quickly finds out why that genome he shares with his murdered twin is so important: He’s to take over his brother’s Avatar, a creature developed from harvested human DNA combined with that of the indigenous Na’Vis. While he lies dreaming in a coffin-like pod, his Avatar will become one with the Na’Vi, learning their ways. While his Avatar sleeps, Sully, in his own body, reports back to the evil colonel and the equally evil corporate hack, Parker Selfridge, (Giovanni Ribisi) who’s got his eyes on the valuable “unobtainium” rocks sitting beneath the Na’Vis home. “Those savages,” Selfridge snarls, “are ruining our whole operation.” The goal: Get the Na’Vi to move. And if all goes well, the paraplegic Sully will be rewarded with a working set of legs.
Of course, after a rough beginning, Sully falls in love with both the land and the beauteous Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Where life on the spaceship is all sterile grays (filmed in live-action), life on the digital Pandora is a lush paradise. There are flowers that abruptly snap shut at the touch; luminous jellyfish that float through the air like dandelion fluff; rhinoceros-like creatures that blend into the foliage and then come charging out of the movie screen. (And yes, you will flinch.) Then there are the Na’Vi: peaceful warrior types whose adornments echo the Masai; when they’re on the warpath, they sound an awful lot like the “Indians” in the cowboy movies of yore.
This is where the post-viewing analysis comes in: In Cameron’s hands, the Na’Vi are clearly superior beings to the grim-faced humans: They’re more spiritually aware; bigger, taller, stronger, more fit, tree-hugging nature lovers compared to the humans’ crass destroy-and-pillage worldview. But it’s hard to shake the whole noble-savage, Dances With Wolves vibe, particularly with Sully taking on the role of Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar. Yes, the Na’Vi are glorious creatures—but will the enlightened white guy ultimately save the day? Do the Na’Vi serve as the 22nd-century version of the cinematic Magical Negro, whose only purpose is for the white man’s salvation?
Whatever the answers to those nagging questions, Avatar is a compelling, barrier-breaking film that sets a new standard in moviemaking. It’s that good.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.