Action is as much about the emotions of the moment as it is the actual flow of the sequence.
In “Avatar,” both are accomplished thanks to the work of Cameron and editors John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin as they crosscut between the various arenas of the climactic fight. Never once losing track of the main story focus (preventing the RDA from delivering their explosive payload against the Tree of Souls) and the personal stakes of Jake and Neytiri versus Quaritch, our attention is pulled into multiple directions without ever becoming distracting. There’s the visceral aerial attacks between the RDA aircraft and the Na’vi atop their pterodactyl-like Ikran, the ground-level clash between soldiers in those mech AMP suits and Na’vi riders on horseback, and the show-stopping moment when it appears as if Eywa itself rises up against Pandora’s invaders to unleash its wildlife into the fray — as perfect a marriage between action and theme as it gets.
Everything builds to the hand-to-hand fight against Quaritch, who witnessed (and narrowly escaped) the failure of his disastrous air campaign and is now seemingly out for Jake’s blood with nothing left to lose. Impressively, Cameron shrinks the scope of the otherwise sprawling climax to this one small stretch of jungle and these three main characters because, as much as spectacle reigns supreme elsewhere in “Avatar,” Cameron also understands that we have no reason to be invested if it doesn’t all boil down to character. One brutal fight and a last-minute save by Neytiri later, the enemy is vanquished (or is he???) and a battle sequence that could’ve resulted in sensory overload to the extreme is instead brought to a satisfying close.
More than most, Cameron recognizes that action never need be an impediment to everything else a storyteller tries to accomplish. Perhaps more than any other segment of the film, the climax of “Avatar” brings all the emotion, character, and, yes, spectacle to the fore in a beautifully rendered sequence that would only be topped by its own sequel. Even with “The Way of Water” upping the ante considerably (in a manner of speaking, at least), it’s worth celebrating the workmanlike pleasures of the action in “Avatar,” too.