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And then the lord created Avatar...

By Raja Sen
Last updated on: December 18, 2009 13:21 IST
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How do you sleep with a tail? Doesn't a long one get in the way when tossing and turning?

This was just one of the questions that never plagued me before I watched James Cameron's phenomenal Avatar, a film that humanises a blue-skinned, flat-nosed distant race to such an extent that we rightfully end up calling the humans aliens.

So effectively and overwhelmingly does Cameron craft the gorgeous planet of Pandora and its native lifeform that we sympathise with the three-dimensional creatures more than most actors, wanting really to be one of his Na'vi. So yes, I wondered about the tail trouble.

Avatar is a stunning achievement, the definitive big-screen event of our generation. Words seem hopelessly inadequate to try and capture its spectacular three-dimensional glory, but suffice it to say that it sucks you in and immerses you smack bang into a whole new world, giving you a cinematic experience so goddamned rich it becomes impossible to assess it as a mere movie. Watch this, and watch it in 3D. Trust me.

Set in 2154, the film stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, twin brother to a researcher named Tom, part of an Avatar program set to explore the planet Pandora. Earthlings are after massive deposits of the prophetically named mineral Unobtanium found on this planet right under the primary colony of the Na'vi tribe, and the Avatar program -- headed by Sigourney Weaver as Grace Augustine -- aims to befriend the azure race and learn with them. Since Sully's brother Tom has died in the field, Jake, a paraplegic former Marine, has been brought in so that Tom's Avatar, the virtual Na'vi body made from his DNA, can yet be used.

The story is a simple, sweeping epic, a hero's tale as the legless Jake finds his feet in the Na'vi world. While researchers and scientists aren't able to establish a personal equation of trust with the Na'vi, the impulsive Jake -- "of the Jarhead clan" -- manages to instinctively connect with the tribe, the blue people fascinated by the first warrior coming to them from the skypeople (that's us).

Befriended by the bizarrely bellicose Col. Miles Quadritch (a significantly scarred Stephen Lang), Sully starts out a loyal army man going in to infiltrate 'the hostiles.' He points out weaknesses and strengths in the key structures of the Na'vi world to help Quadritch and his men ready for impending assault, and his learning of the Na'vi tongue is methodical and military, through rote and repetition. But as he takes us deeper into the beautiful world of the nature-worshipping people, both Sully and we discover its inexorable appeal. Leaving? Forget it, Jake, it's Na'vitown.

The film opens with Jake in space, his eyes waking from cryogenic sleep. A bright blue blur in the middle of the picture gradually solidifies into a tiny bubble, and it's a bubble so real we can reach out and touch it. We're immediately sold on this revolutionary 3D experience, and it just gets better in Pandora, as we see translucent jellyfish-like creatures float luminiscently in the foreground, and are dazzled by the sight of flying ikrans -- giant psychedelic pterodactyls -- swooping in for the kill. It's stupefying, and none of us have honestly seen anything like this before. Heck, even the subtitles float in a wonderful 3D layer. Amazing.

(As for the 3D, it takes ten seconds to completely adjust, after which it's simply mega. I wore my 3D glasses over my prescription glasses, and they worked perfect. If anyone warns you of nausea, they're lying and not your friend.)

The natives seem initially like unsightly aliens, but once we are enchanted by Zoe Saldana's irresistible Neyitri, the winsome Na'vi chief's daughter, and get used to their maya-blue skin and their breakneck grace, we start to appreciate their stark loveliness.

Thanks to the 3D experience, Cameron renders them incredibly tactile, and we get a sense of how it feels to touch them. How smooth and cold their skin must be, how polished and clean. When Neyitri takes Jake for his first flight, she wraps her slender hands around his chest, and it's a moment so unbelievably, effortlessly sensual that it needs to be seen to be believed.

Politically, the film is a Pixarian analogy of imperialism, taking a now fashionable anti-war stance as we see avarice turn the humans into self-justifying beasts, eager to cannibalise and plunder another world just for whatever pays the bills. There's no more green where they come from, we're told.

The Na'vi, on the other hand, are a tribe existing through a marvellous, synaptic connection with nature itself, their head deity being a giant tree. They have a warrior king and a priestess queen, each as important as the other, and this yin and yang keeps them in an immaculate balance.

This is a tale of love. Of greed. Of dreams. Of people. Of mercy. Of vengeance. Of faith. This is a tale of life, and it genuinely gives you the taste of a whole new one. The themes are simple but the mythology is deceptively nuanced, and one never expected the most expensive film in the history of cinema to be subtle in any way. 

This one resonates with an emotional intensity so relatable it grabs us by the heart and leaves it pounding. It's a simple story we've heard before, but told in a fashion as epic as can be imagined. Cynics should just shut up and feel their jaws hit the floor.

There has also never been a film more necessary to watch in theatres, in 3D. This is a film for everyone, breaking through barriers of aesthetics and opinion to herald what is truly the future of visual effects. The last forty or so minutes are a purely primal action sequence, and the man who made Aliens and Terminator 2 clearly can still choreograph action better than anyone else in the world.

It feels fist-pumpingly good to see an arrow hit the right spot and heartbreaking to see an innocent Na'vi plummet to his death. Sheer adrenalin all around, throughout. This is an experience you need to go for, because words do not do it justice -- and neither will DVDs.

The cast does well all around. Lang's Quadritch is a man you end up loathing, while Michelle Rodriguez, in Cameron tradition, wears a white vest and kicks serious butt. Weaver invests immense heart and sincerity to her Grace, giving the film an emotional depth. Saldana is the pick of the actors as Neyitri, investing such fantastic life to an alien lifeform, while Worthington's vanilla anonymity works in his favour for his portrayal of an everyman hero, making sure he ends up a hero for the ages.

Above all else, however, this is clearly one man's film. This is one man's spellbinding vision, and he has justified the deafening, incessant hype this motion picture has generated.

James Cameron, living up to his initials, has delivered a miracle. Hallelujah.

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Raja Sen in Mumbai