When I saw Avatar, for the first time in years, I walked out of the theater wanting to see it again immediately. And next time, in 3-D!
Whether or not Avatar shares some superficial characteristics with Alan Dean Foster’s Mid-World (which is fresh in my memory since I just read it a few months ago) is a consideration which rapidly pales to insignificance as the viewer enters in to the experience of the world Pandora and the Na’vi, the People who live in near-symbiotic contact with her.
The plot of the story is familiar ~ the paradise threatened by despoilers blindly bent upon conquest for the usual reason: the plunder of natural resources for profit. Even Jake’s absorption into the Na’vi culture, his leading of the People against the human invasion forces, and the love that develops between him and Neytiri comes as no surprise.
What is surprising and most compelling is the consistent portrayal of a world in which not only the dominant species but all species live in complete harmony, each with the other. In fact, that is the only way they can live, since all that lives and breathes is part of the larger “life” that is Pandora.
In Pandora, the fact that all that every living thing, including the “earth” itself, is made up of the same “substance” is not only acknowledged but honored and prized. Though it is never explicitly said, the connection of the People to the other inhabitants of their world via the tentacles encased in what otherwise looks like a long braid is vital to them ~ a fact eloquently but subtly illustrated by the knife the Na’vi warrior holds to Jake’s tentacle braid when he is captured. The implication is clear: to be literally “cut off” from the rest of life in Pandora is the ultimate punishment, and one which no one of the People would survive.
The connection between the People and the world, its plants and its animals, is exquisitely illustrated by the illumination of energy ~ light ~ in every plant the People touch, every step on the grasses of the forest, and in the way Pandoran animals all have connective tentacle sheaths dangling from their heads. Those tentacles are the actual first point of contact between a Na’vi and the “horse” or “dragon” he or she rides.
All the physical characteristics are so consistent in this world, in fact, that the concept of “CG” never even enters your head ~ not about the humans’ machines, nor the plants and animals of Pandora, and definitely not about the Na’vi and the human/Na’vi avatars.
Adding to the literally larger-than-life illusion, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana inhabit their characters so completely ~ as completely as Jake inhabits his avatar, one could say ~ that there is never a moment when you see either of them ~ or any of the other primary characters, for that matter ~ “acting.” Even seeing Jake in both his human body and his avatar introduces no sense of artifice or unreality at any point.
In the same way, Sigourney Weaver (Grace) and Joel David Moore (Norm), the scientists, naturally inhabit their roles, and Stephen Leng’s portrayal of Colonel Quaritch is spot on, the quintessential scarred marine commander.
I have to say, though, that the breakout performance among the secondary characters has to be Michelle Rodriguez as pilot Trudy Chacon. Like Worthington and Saldana, Rodriguez is a fresh face, portraying someone we immediately like and soon come to admire and respect as the non-automaton marine pilot with a conscience.
The rain forest of Pandora is lush and sensual, with jewel-toned plants and animals, like the 15 foot, blue Na’vi, all in touch with the land, the world, in a way that we humans have either never known or have long forgotten. Yet there is something in that harmony and interconnectedness of all life that calls to the divine energy in each of us, something that we recognize somewhere deep within ~ a thrum of vibrant life that bids us come to paradise or, perhaps, to return there.