Actionscifi's Blog

Movie Review – Avatar
January 5, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Movie reviews | Tags: , , ,

Spoilers in orange.

When you’re handed a $400-million movie budget, the possibilities must seem endless, but you still have to follow the first commandment of Hollywood blockbusters: give ’em good and evil, and lots of action.  It’s a lesson James Cameron learned the hard way long ago when he made the action-free big-budget flop The Abyss, and one that he applied in Titanic by working a gun-wielding terrorist into a movie about a ship that hits an iceberg.  But that’s nothing on the trailblazing Avatar, in which Cameron wraps cinema’s most extraordinary technological experience around a hackneyed story you’ve seen countless times before.

The plot revolves around Private Jake Sully, a foot soldier whose life has been ruined by the death of his twin brother and his own war injury, which has left him a paraplegic.  Jake’s brother had been a scientist in the groundbreaking Avatar program, which makes creatures who look almost identical to the Na’vi, the huge, light blue beings who live on Pandora. Each avatar is matched by DNA to its human pilot, who controls it while lying in suspended animation, feeling, seeing, hearing and tasting whatever the avatar does.  The Avatar program works from within the heavily fortified base camp of the huge mining operation set up by humans to extract a rare mineral from the ground.  The program is designed to build trust with the Na’vi but the miners are systematically destroying it, kind of like anthropologists working with Shell in the Nigerian oil fields. Since Jake’s brother has died back on lawless planet Earth, Jake is the only person capable of driving his new avatar because he has the same DNA.  So it is that a paraplegic man gets to walk again, albeit while lying in a trumped-up coffin.  Jake’s first moments in control of his avatar are quite beautiful as he clumsily breaks out of the lab to sprint through the grounds of the compound, stopping to feel the dirt between his toes and marvel at the sensation of walking again.

There is a clash between those who believe that Avatar is the most amazing cinematic experience of all time and those who think that it is a cliché-ridden farce.  In many ways, both are right.  The last 20 minutes are depressingly formulaic, but this movie is really about experiencing the stunning world of Pandora, a planet so richly conceived that it takes your breath away.  What’s most amazing is that Cameron has created an entire jungle on his computers and made it feel real.  He has not filmed it in the Amazon or the Congo and he hasn’t used a single plant from planet Earth. Instead there are giant parasol-shaped flowers that retract at a touch, and others that light up when stood on; the animals range from flying dinosaurs to six-legged horses.  Like the language of the Na’vi, Cameron has created the whole world from scratch in minute detail.

Cameron spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on the production budget and you should do him the courtesy of seeing the film in 3D.  The field is like none you’ve ever seen; the picture extends deep into the screen, allowing you to focus on the foreground or the background, which obviously works best during the all-important action scenes.  The film will undoubtedly age well.  Just like Star Wars now, we’ll watch this film in 30 years’ time and marvel at how beautiful it looks, even if by then we’ll be able to pick up plenty of technological flaws.

But not even Cameron’s techno tricks can stop us from needing to bond with the storyline, so soon enough the landscape recedes. During his first sortie, Jake is separated from his companions and saved by the blue bombshell Neytiri, who reluctantly introduces him to her tribe.  This is where Cameron goes mainstream, employing a narrative that could be labeled “Going Native” (or what about “Blue Love”?).  Think Tarzan meets Dances with Wolves.

While Sam Worthington channels Russell Crowe (which isn’t high praise on this blog), Zoe Saldana puts in one of the stronger performances as a hissing, high-maintenance feline lead.  She is one of a host of gutsy women, including the scene-stealing Michelle Rodriguez, who basically reprises her Lost role, and Cameron favourite Signourney Weaver. Weaver has done more than any woman to put strong female characters on the sci-fi map and everyone from Linda Hamilton to Jennifer Garner should bow down before her. She seems to be loving this role as a benevolent mother figure who battles the meatheads trying to wipe out the native population.

The lead meathead is Colonel Miles Quaritch, who Stephen Lang seems to have leaped into after watching Full Metal Jacket one too many times.  In James Cameron’s 3D universe, Colonel Quaritch struggles to give us two dimensions.  Unfortunately he becomes the lead nemesis of the Na’vi, but Cameron would have been better off investing more screen time in Parker Selfridge, the head of the mining operations on Pandora.  Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is the archetypal weak leader who ends up trying to project strength through violence.  Cameron could have infused more nuance into the script by making Selfridge the chief head-kicker, but with Quaritch in that role there could only be one ending.

Nevertheless, what most people will take away from this film is the feeling that they’ve just watched cinematic history. And a message.  As for what that message is, it doesn’t seem like a commentary on the Iraq war to me.  On imperialism? Sure. On environmentalism? Obviously. But the real value of this film is that it uses an imaginary world to critique the real one. In this age of feuding culture warriors, the preferred method of warfare is to undermine your opponents by picking pedantic holes in their books or movies. That strategy was effectively used five years ago against Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, to cast doubt over global warming, and has been repeatedly used against those who have criticised the historic oppression of Australia’s Indigenous people.  In Avatar, Cameron has laid bare the exploitation and destruction of an indigenous population, but no right-wing academic will be able to quibble that the Na’vi couldn’t really control horses using their minds, or that they were adequately compensated for their lost lands and treated with humanity.  His overarching message that human progress bows before no one may therefore prove more durable than many rigorously researched documentaries about real-life events.  If so, that may be as impressive an achievement as the special effects.


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2 Comments so far
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Good points. I agree that Ribisi’s character was more interesting than Lang’s, especially given the hints of inner conflict (and even regret) that Ribisi managed to convey. The film was visually stunning, and the environment of Pandora so well conceived and executed, that I was willing to overlook the fact that the plot contained no surprises.

Comment by Dennis the Vizsla

Agreed. I really want to try and get to see it again in 3D because it’s the greatest “experience” film ever made.

Comment by actionscifi

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