Review: Avatar

avatar one sheetAvatar is a movie about manifest destiny and second thoughts, a sweeping epic retelling of a classic theme about a soldier “going native” as he learns that the enemy isn’t a faceless monster, but an intelligent race. The most obvious parallel is Dances with Wolves, but director James Cameron has taken the basic storyline and created a visual masterpiece that’s almost a perfect sci-fi film.

Avatar takes place 150 years in the future, on the far distant planet of Pandora, where everything on the planet and all its inhabitants are connected through energy fields. The local inhabitants, the Na’vi, are a race of ten-foot tall hunter/gatherers modeled after Native American tribes. The Na’vi commune with nature, honor the spirit of animals they kill and worship the great Home Tree.

The film follows Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington), a Marine with a disabling spinal injury that’s left him wheelchair-bound. He is shanghied into replacing his recently killed scientist brother on a mission to Pandora: he’s a perfect genetic match, though he’s clearly not any sort of scientist. Pandora is of great interest to humans not because it’s a lush, gorgeous planet but because it’s the primary source of the fantastically valuable Unobtanium: if the planet has to be destroyed to successfully mine this substance, well, so be it. Human need is more important than the rights of the natives.

Jake is given an avatar, a Na’vi body that is a mix of Na’vi and his own DNA, a ten foot tall creature within which his consciousness resides, a new, alien, but thrillingly functional body. His mission: to get the Na’vi to relocate their home before the company destroys it to access the richest vein of Unobtanium on the planet. Problem is, he meets Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and falls in love…

Avatar is not a masterpiece of cinema, the story is entirely too predictable. But it’s still well worth seeing because visually, Cameron has created an entirely new type of film, a completely immersive alien world that is both magical and frightening, along with an alien race that’s sufficiently humanoid that we can empathize with their passions while being repelled by their primitive instincts. It’s one of the few films where I’ll strongly recommend you see it in the movie theater, in 3D. You’ll be amazed.

The Pandorian society that Cameron’s team have invented is truly alien in some aspects, while reassuringly human in others. For example, they don’t have horses but instead each Na’vi warrior has a Banshee, a pterodactyl-like flying creature. They symbiotically connect with their Banshees via a nerve coupling that literally has the Na’vi plugging their pony tail into a waving antenna of the creature. This same literal extension of their nervous system also lets the Na’vi connect directly with the energy system — and collective memory — of the planet itself.

The Pandorian mining efforts are run by a cliché evil corporation called  Resources Developmental Administration, run by two-dimensional bean counter Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). His right-hand man is the tough-as-nails Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch is the main antagonist in the film, a marine who embodies the worst of human instincts and behaviors. At one point he refers to an all-out war that he’s going to unleash on the Na’vi by promising to “blast a crater in their racial memory.”

avatar production still

The Corporation troops arrive, a clear nod to Apocalypse Now

Sully starts out following Quaritch’s orders to infiltrate the Na’vi and supply them with intelligence about fortifications and the layout of the Home Tree area. As an avatar, however, he falls under the supervision of botanist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and works closely with his friend Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore). Spellman is a likable character who kept reminding me of Bob Denver’s title role in the TV series Gilligan’s Island, of all things.

Weaver has a great role in this film, but it’s also a clear reprise of her pivotal role as the tougher-than-the-alien Ellen Ripley in the Alien films (which is no surprise: James Cameron directed Aliens, the second film of the series).  Still, in an industry awash in fragile female and overly masculine male roles, both Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez (as Trudy Chacon, marine pilot) are strong additions to the cast and story.

The most striking thing about Avatar are the visuals, for which Cameron’s team invented an entirely new way of filming that overlaid live computer graphics as the camera rolled. With a budget reputedly north of $250 million, it’s also one of the most expensive films ever made. Everyone was skeptical about Cameron’s Titanic when released because it too had a phenomenal (at the time) shooting budget, but audiences loved the film and helped propel it to astonishing box office heights.

At almost three hours running time, it’s also a long movie, but I never felt it drag when watching the film: there’s a lot of story to cover and a whole lot of exterior shots to stitch into the narrative. As is the modern style, the Director’s Cut will no doubt add 15-20 minutes of footage and give us a hint of the hundreds of hours of hybrid CG/live film that were produced along the way.

That’s why it’s too bad that the storyline itself is so darn predictable: Avatar is a great sci-fi film that could have been an amazing epic story, but ends up being an astonishing technical achievement, all frosting and precious little cake.  Very worth seeing in a theater, in 3D, but it could have truly been a crowning cinematic achievement with a bit more time and effort devoted to story along the way.

10 comments on “Review: Avatar

  1. I thought the audience would applaud madly at the end of the film. They didn’t. Were they exhausted by the film’s running time … or were they grumpy over having to root for blue aliens over their fellow humans?

  2. Like Christian, I expected more applause. There was some, but not as much as I had expected based on the intensity of the film. Stunning… and therefore I was just stunned! Riveted and stunned throughout. To look away from the screen, even for a moment, would have meant a pause in my gorging myself on the tasty feast before me. I don’t think I even shifted in my seat once, and it was the middle of the night!!! A visual treasure, that I hope to re-experience many times.

  3. Avatar moved me by its simple message. The essence of humanity was brought to life though the eyes of alien creatures untold light years away. The movie’s plot of a world sitting on the edge of its own demise—motivated by selfish greed—is a particularly telling saga for our times. I suppose some of our friends at the New York Times may have missed that!

  4. Approximately two people clapped in our full theater, and that’s because beauty alone can only intrigue people for so long. Beauty without depth becomes burdensome, which is what this film ended up being.

    The character and plot development were terrible. EVERY character in the movie was a cliche. Whether that be the typical, run-them-into-the-ground head marine, or the bean counter who just wants the Unobtanium (I mean really?? Even the name of the mineral they are trying to mine is terrible) and will run over a species at all costs, the cliche characters are embarrassing.

    You no doubt had what was visually the most stunning thing I have ever seen in a movie theater (3D of course). The world was palpable, beautiful, and had all the uniqueness that the story itself lacked. Further, it was nice that the movie did not take cheap attempts at using 3D. For instance, there wasn’t the typical 3D image jumping out at you every few minutes. In some parts it was difficult to actually tell the difference between the 3D and the 2D, but it was always there.

    In sum, if the producers of this movie had spent half of the time on the story that they spent on the graphics, it would have been the biggest film of this century. Instead, it’s burdensome characters and story line drag down would could have been greatness to mediocrity.

  5. The annoying characters and horrible story line are both at a draw for the worst place. I must agree that the movie had amazing special effects but beyond that there was no substance. I found myself longing for the natives to just kill the main character.

  6. it’s amusing to read how the avatar fanboys found it odd that the rest of the movie audience didn’t applaud at the end of the movie – they didn’t because i think the movie insulted their intelligence – a visually rich movie, no doubt, but with an embarrasingly predictable story and one-dimensional characters. An interesting comparison between this film, featuring the highest end animation and ‘The Princess and The Frog,’ which has one of the most traditional methods – the showings I went to for ‘Princess’ had them clapping resoundingly, not for what I think was state-of-the-art animation, but what is so rare these days in movies: interesting characters and a well-executed story.

  7. I like the story of the Avatar,, about the comment above,, “Derek” hav you consider why US is on war?? OIL just OIL? (maybe),,, Everything with high value comprise everything… “Thats one point I like in the story” I watch the movie in Canada and audience gave good cheer at the end… Maybe because of diversity of Culture here,, the movie touch how different custom be merge to a bigger understanding, the deep of the story is dependent on the audience experience and belief….. I like the story more than the titanic(love-romance for one another),, Avatar have more outward relovlt,,, To try to understand the unheard,, to understand the link to unloveble,, to find the similarity of unfamiliar,, to choose life over money,,,, its more trying to be unself even u are selfish.,, but a lot didn’t buy the movie,, because majority now are busy to earn money, to find secure love.,, maybe thats why its the movie is not to deep for others because its not their experience….

  8. They should have called this movie, “The Last Samurai Learns of a Inconvienent Truth and Bowls for Columbine.” The director of the Last Samurai, James Cameron, and Michael Moore can go F themselves. This is another Hollywood film that demonizes the American Military while taking cues from M Knight’s The Happening about the immediate threat of global warming, oh I mean global cooling, sorry I meant climate change. These liberal airheads fail to recognize the realities of this world and how America has pioneered equal rights throughout the world. Did the indigenous people of the Americas get a bad rap, sure they did, but times have changed and people fail to recognize that the way the world is run now is inherently different, and the reason this country has had the capacity to transform (i.e. Abolish slavery, Suffrage to all) is due to the amazing framework set forth by the architects if this great country… It is ashame that it is being drastically overhauled. Not to mention, the natives were fighting amongst themselves as well, and guess what this inter-tribal fighting was over, you guessed it… Land.

  9. Art imitates life, maybe the non-clapping was 1) the visually stunning graphics and 3d affects; and 2) message that is hitting to close to home. I mean really, there are still some Native Americans that are trying to get possession of family remains from the Smithsonian. It was nice to see corporate thinking, sense of entitlement and taking at all costs lose for once…

    Predictable to you, but maybe it’s because not so long ago that very same thing happened in the United States, however, the outcome was different though…

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