Avatar: Movie Review
Read what Jim Vejvoda of ign.com has to say about James Cameron’s, “Avatar“. I saw it and I plan on seeing it again. It’s that good. Give yourself a Christmas present and see this one before it leaves the theaters; but see it 3D if at all possible.
The highly anticipated sci-fi epic Avatar centers on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine who is offered an amazing opportunity after his twin brother dies. Recruited by a big faceless corporation (is there ever any other kind in a movie?), Jake travels to the distant world of Pandora, inhabited by the simple, indigenous Na’vi, blue-skinned humanoids who stand 9′ tall and have tails. Pandora is also home to a valuable mineral that could solve all of Earth’s energy problems … if only those pesky natives didn’t live on top of the richest deposits of it.
Since humans can’t breathe Pandora’s atmosphere, the company has created Avatars, in which human pilots use their consciousness to remotely-control a genetically engineered body that is a hybrid of Na’vi and human DNA. Jake’s deceased brother represented a big investment on the part of the Company, but since he shares the same genome as his twin Jake is offered to take his place as an Avatar driver. Gung-ho for action, Jake agrees and then has the pot further sweetened for him by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the scar-faced leader of the Company’s private military wing. Quaritch offers Jake a deal: he wants Jake, via his Avatar, to spy on the Na’vi, learn their ways and gain their trust so that he can convince them to “relocate” off their mineral-rich land. In return, Quaritch guarantees the Company will pay for the costly operation to cure Jake’s paralysis. Jake eagerly agrees, but a few months into the job finds himself “going native” after falling for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful and fierce Na’vi who takes Jake into her tribe. Love and a guilty conscience, along with the realization that he has found a place to belong and call home, propels Jake, in his Avatar form, to switch sides and help the Na’vi make a stand against the increasingly violent encroachment of “the sky people.”
Wow. James Cameron pulled it off. I was a big skeptic about Avatar ever since I saw the promotional footage Cameron showed at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con; the effects, the characters, the hype — none of them were affecting me even though I really wanted them to. I suffered through every Delgo or FernGully or Dances With Wolves joke — and even made a few myself, I’ll admit — and remain shocked that we’re a week away from the movie’s release and no one in the general population seems to be buzzing about the movie let alone fully understands what the hell it’s about. But neither the film’s marketing nor the sizzle reel roadshow that 20th Century Fox and Cameron went on have done Avatar justice. You just have to see it to believe it.
On a technical level, Avatar is a landmark in motion picture history, a film that will be remembered 70 years from now as redefining the boundaries and possibilities of cinema much the way that D.W. Griffith’s films did. It helps audiences take a giant step forward in their suspension of disbelief in what is “real” onscreen, while raising the bar for what mass appeal genre movies can be and achieve. It also validates all the hype and investment in 3-D and motion-capture animation. And if all that sounds too good to be true, then just know that Avatar is a grand, glorious and kick-ass piece of entertainment, an old-fashioned movie gussied up by state of the art filmmaking. Does Cameron cannibalize from his own films here? Sure, you can’t help but think of Aliens (the presence of mech suits and Sigourney Weaver being the most obvious), but to dismiss the film out of hand on that basis would be narrow-minded. After all, every filmmaker poaches from their own work (Scorsese and Tim Burton spring to mind). Cameron simply knows what he does best, and he does all that and more in Avatar.
My apprehension about Avatar dissipated after the first 10 minutes, by which point I knew that I was in great hands. Cameron displays such confidence here that you’d never know it’s been almost 13 years since he’s released a feature film. He has done a Toklien-esque job of creating the world of Pandora, exploring its ecology and zoology and offering an almost anthropological study of the Na’vi. (I know that all sounds very pretentious and maybe even a bit boring to some, but Cameron manages to make it all an organic part of the story as everything on Pandora is connected; the balance of nature there is such that when one part of the environment is damaged or destroyed, everything else is affected by it.) Perhaps even more so than Dances With Wolves, Avatar reminded me of what Malick was attempting to do with The New World — an exploration of nature and a native culture couched in a culture clash/love story where the white hero falls for the chief’s daughter — but done far more effectively and excitingly. (Yes, Avatar is essentially a sci-fi version of the Pocahontas story.)
Still, don’t think that Avatar is some haughty, New Age-y message movie about environmentalism and the horrors and guilt of colonialism. It certainly is about all those things and much more, but it’s ostensibly a Western set in space crossed with an undercover/behind enemy lines story. Indeed, Avatar shows how tough it is to get a Western made in Hollywood these days: you’ve got to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, set it on another planet and shoot it in motion-capture in order to tell the story of the displacement and destruction of Native Americans. (Na’vi, native, get it?) The Na’vi are sort of a cross between the Sioux and the Cherokee. Their war whoops sound like those of Indians in old Westerns (perhaps too much so; even their “horses” sound, well, too much like horses). Quaritch is essentially Andrew Jackson, a tough old soldier driven to “relocate” the natives by any means necessary. “The Company” is the railroad, while “Unobtainium” (a real term) is akin to gold in the Black Hills or oil in Oklahoma.
For a Westerns fan, U.S. history buff, and sci-fi fanboy such as myself, Avatar offered an embarrassment of riches to geek out over. However, Avatar is also just as much a commentary on the state of the world (and imperialism) today as it is the past. Metaphorical nods to America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are loud and clear and undeniable. The film’s private military company is essentially Blackwater in space. There’s a scene of cataclysmic destruction that overtly suggests 9/11 and the World Trade Center. The terms “terrorists” and “shock and awe” are used. Yet Cameron never gets too lost in a political argument; he is, after all, a filmaker keenly aware of the need to keep domestic audiences happy if he’s to make commercially successful movies. So by making his tale an escapist fantasy, Cameron has swiped a page from the Red Scare playbook and used genre to cloak the tougher and more critical aspects of his message.
Of course, the film’s themes and subtext wouldn’t matter if we didn’t like the characters. Like District 9’s Wikus van de Merwe, Jake Sully is capable of both kindness and treachery and is out to save himself as much as he is the aliens. Avatar is the make or break Hollywood movie for Aussie actor Sam Worthington, especially after Terminator Salvation flopped, and he acquits himself well, striking a nice balance between callowness, ambition and guilt. As for the rest of the cast, Lang is a revelation as Quaritch; it’s tough to believe that this muscle-bound old soldier is the same actor who played cowardly Ike Clanton in Tombstone and the doughy, sleazy tabloid reporter in Manhunter. Sigourney Weaver brings grace (no pun intended) and wit to her role as cranky but goodhearted scientist Grace Augustine, and the darkly comic Giovanni Ribisi shines as the d-bag suit who represents The Company’s interests on Pandora. Worse than Paul Reiser’s corporate stooge in Aliens, Selfridge is a soulless, bigoted careerist who epitomizes the expression “the banality of evil.”
Saldana, hot off of Star Trek, is solid as Neytiri, but the Na’vi themselves are rather one-dimensional characters. Cameron recycles the stereotypical screen depiction of Native Americans, but sidesteps the thornier aspects of it somewhat by making them aliens. Still, the Na’vi are all types we’ve seen before in Westerns: the noble chief, the warrior princess, the earth mother, the tough brave who is the hero’s rival but ultimately comes to respect him. These archetypes (or stereotypes, if you want) coupled with such a familiar story is the film’s biggest drawback. It could be argued that given the fantastical premise of the film and its strange alien characters, it was probably necessary to employ a more traditional storyline, something relatable for an audience since there were enough other elements that could have possibly lost them. Still, if Avatar sequels happen then it would be nice to see the Na’vi given more depth and dimension as characters.
See proof that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Books can (and will) be written on Avatar’s visual effects. Cameron and his team have achieved a stunning level of photo-realism in the environment and inhabitants of Pandora and of the mech suits and vessels of the humans. (One thought kept going through my mind during the climactic battle: James Cameron should direct the Halo movie.) He gradually introduces us to the various fantastical elements, allowing us time to let these things become real in our minds. For the most part, the yellow eyes of the Na’vi seem alive and expressive (a first for motion-capture characters, in my opinion), although there are a few times when Jake’s looked “dead” to me. The level of detail in the Na’vis’ skin, and in the vegetation and beasts of Pandora, is astounding. Not since seeing Star Wars as a little kid have I felt so completely and magically transported to such a strange, new world.
This gradual approach has its drawbacks, though, in that it contributes to the film’s bloated running time. This is a real bladder buster of a movie, and I’d be amazed if there were any deleted scenes of importance on the eventual DVD release. For example, the “learning to fly your dragon” sequence goes on far too long, with Cameron using it as a travelogue to show off Pandora — and all the nifty and costly CGI landscapes his team created — rather than to advance the story. That’s just one example, but the film definitely could have been tightened up. The running time and the overall formulaic nature of the story is what keeps me from giving Avatar a higher score.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised by Avatar is an understatement. My advice to you is to forget all that you think you know or believe about Avatar. Just go and experience the world of Pandora and revel in the fact that one of the most entertaining filmmakers of our time is back in action.