After months of build-up and expectation, James Cameron’s Avatar has arrived. Playing against its hype, Avatar isn’t going to change your world, but for 2+ darkened hours, it’s sure as hell going to rock it.
James Cameron has delivered a visually resplendent, excellently paced and fully engrossing movie experience with his ode to 10 foot blue people and the humans who want to be them… or at least rape their planet. Avatar is a film built on the chassis of a summer blockbuster and delivered in a tight holiday package that’s rife with the reasons we go to movies: fun, escapism and perhaps most importantly, to feel. In short, Cameron may not have delivered a flawless masterpiece, but he’s certainly delivered his version of a close relative.
Avatar will inevitably draw criticism from a stodgy segment intent on reviewing the film amidst its din of hype and expectation, and while much of the sizzle is slightly overblown (as 90% of hype always is), Avatar shouldn’t be judged on that criteria, but rather on what unfolds during its two hour and 40 minute run time. This film is long, but never sags. Its pacing is quick and its exploration so enveloping, the 2.75 hours becomes a footnote, not a factor. On that note, make certain you don’t drink anything two hours before you enter the theater and make sure you hit the bathroom five minutes before showtime. You don’t want to miss a moment.
To anyone at all experienced in movie storytelling, Avatar holds no surprises and is happily beholden to a “been-there-done-that” story arc. The observation that Avatar is Dances With Wolves in space (with a sadly generic James Horner soundtrack) is warranted, but honestly, does it matter? Dances With Wolves is a fine, compelling template and one that absolutely needed a space remake set amidst exploratory adventure and lush world-building.
And the world-building is impressive. Cameron introduces the audience to the fantasy world of Pandora. This misty jungle planet is home to an entire race of tribal, ten foot tall N’avi– aliens whose females are genetic inheritors of the perkiest, most strategically exposed breasts in the universe; A feline-visaged race who are so in touch with their planet they carry biological USB ports in their pony tails– pony tails which they can use to peacefully and literally connect to virtually every creature living thing on the Pandora. Even the planet itself is alive, every tree connected via a network of electromagnetic impulses. The flora and fauna are at once alien and familiar, full of light and detailed wonder. The world building is absolutely massive in scope and there’s an underlying feeling every detail, every bit of Wayne Barlowe inspired biology/botany has a purpose and explanation for existence.
The humans– employees and contractors of a plundering industrial corporation who are mining the planet for the cryptic element Unobtanium while under protection of a for-hire military force– are simply meat on Pandora. Unable to breathe the air and unable to compete with the local wildlife, they live inside a military-industrial compound of cold steel, airstrips and belching smokestacks. The humans and N’avi don’t often interact, and previous contacts have ended badly. In an obvious nod to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Army’s current Human Terrain Project, the humans don’t understand why, amidst bombing and violence, the N’avi can’t be bought with schools, health care and food. In turn, the N’avi refuse to vacate a massive tree they call home– a tree sitting on a huge deposit of Unobtanium. Negotiation and goodwill are long expired and arrows and bullets are about to fly.
As part of the pacification/anthropological negotiation process, humans have been working on prefabricated N’avi bodies to better interact with the local population. Since the N’avi clones are only compatible with their human hosts biology, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is selected for the job when his twin brother passes away mid-project. Of course now the mission is being subverted by military forces and involves less anthropology and more infiltration seeking tactical details on how to flush the N’avi once and for all.
The human contingent consists of Jake Sully, head of security Colonel Quaritch (a scene-chewing Stephen Lang) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver channeling her portrayal of Diane Fossey from Gorillas In The Mist, but with a Cameron-infused non-nonsense bit of kick-ass). The leads are given terrific backup by a supporting cast including Giovani Ribisi, who takes a thankless turn as the corporate stooge (very reminiscent of Carter Burke in Cameron’s Aliens), but with his big watery eyes, conveys a sense he’s not all ledger sheets and quarterly reports. Instead it’s Lang’s no-nonsense portrayal of Quaritch that draws audience ire as the typically callous military cliche itching for combat. When he finally gets it, Quaritch casually sips coffee while obliterating N’avi in a “shock and awe” show of force. Lang chews his character’s scenery so well, his simple villainy becomes the type to cheerfully root both for and against.
Still, amidst all the biological human drama, the humanitarian element of the story is all N’avi— and particularly Zoe Saldana’s (Star Trek) motion capture portrayal of N’avi princess and Jake Sully love interest, Neytiri. Saldana’s character is richly animated and while there were few times she’d be recognized as a living, breathing blue alien, her character is the most fully realized of the bunch. This is thanks, in large part, to Saldana’s anchor as the emotional heart of the Avatar. Her emotionally roiling performance is fantastic and the best mo-cap, if not better, since Andy Serkis’ Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In a genuinely emotional moment, Neytiri watches in helpless horror as the literal memories of her ancestors are plowed over and destroyed– the impact of the scene is painful and meaningful through her heartfelt performance alone. Tragically, it’s almost certainly going to be passed up by the Academy, but it’s an uncanny valley-busting example of craft that deserves serious consideration and accolades.
Cameron borrows heavily from current conflicts, incorporating story elements lifted wholesale from U.S. fumbling in Iraq/Afghanistan. His subtext is a patently anti-Bush/right administration epilogue that feels almost passe. When Colonel Quaritch lectures his troops and justifies their war by “fighting terror with terror”, the statement feels shoehorned as a day late and dollar short swipe toward a bygone and increasingly irrelevant administration. The Bush-isms are overplayed, but Avatar‘s sentiments of understanding, compassion and abolishing of myopic self-focus are in the right place.
Conversely, the real-world fabricated spirituality of the N’avi can be eye rolling in its sincerity at times, as when the tribe gathers around a special tree and holds hands in a swaying orgasmic kumbaya. The message is heavy handed- the consumerist military industrial complex sucks life and soul; the zoological embrace of earthy spirituality gives it. And when Pandora uses its sentience to fight back against its human molesters, the cheese comes close to bubbling to the surface. That could be problematic for a lesser film– especially when a tender moment between human Jake and giant N’avi girlfriend Neytiri elicited audience laughs. Still, the same audience erupted in applause when the credits began rolling and that dichotomy is all Cameron. He knows Avatar isn’t high art- it’s pulpy, scifi adventure and he transcends these kitschy elements to tell a solid story amidst cinematic exploration.
As can be expected from Cameron, Avatar‘s action is a master’s exercise in relaying space and reference that are easy to follow. There’s a ton of visual information here, but not so much that Cameron ever allows the audience to lose focus on what’s happening. And while so much of the experience is CG, the reality is an easy buy thanks to a seamless divide between pixels and the real. When characters climb in and out of their military vehicles and those vehicles interact with their rendered environments and live actors, it’s “wow” inducing. The military equipment is surly, tactile and brimming with machismo– so detailed and real-world you could expect to find it in the 2010 Jane’s Defence. In contrast, Pandora’s creatures and plants are imbued with the feminine touch of mother-Pandora and evolutionary menace. Since the humans and N’avi seldom interact in the same scenes, scale isn’t a factor until things get close and dirty. When it does, the N’avi size difference receives viscerally highlighting. Their arrows become massive spears as they perforate human baddies and the N’avi morph into day-glow Goliaths who toss tiny human aggressors with impunity.
There’s been a great deal of hoopla over Avatar‘s new 3D techniques*. It’s the way to see the film and the intent with which it was all shot. And while it’s kind of neat, the 3D doesn’t validate itself as the wave of the future or allow any more immersion than a 2D film. It does, however, prove it can be used as more than a gimmick. There are no arrows or missiles rocketing into the audience for cheap thrills. Avatar is more akin to viewing a film through a window. Its depth of field isn’t quite jaw-dropping, but does add a dash of gee-whizery. In fact, by midfilm the 3D effect was all but forgotten– and that being the case, the technology almost goes to disprove its own necessity.
Is Avatar a game changer? On a technical side, yes- in that evolution in technology will always move effects sciences forward. On the viewers side, no. But that’s absolutely not a reflection of poor quality. Avatar is great, epic entertainment stuffed with solid film making, a proven story and thrilling world creation. Avatar is an adventure worth taking, and an adventure I can’t wait to revisit again and again.
*As a side note, some media outlets reported audience members feeling nauseous in early screenings. These reports were poo-poo’d, but I can attest they aren’t exaggerated. In the middle of Avatar, a woman stood up and made it halfway out of the theater before projecting her dinner as a dark, chunky stain on the floor. I felt a mild sense of her pain. There’s so much visual information to process in the depth of field and fast sweeping action, the eyes get a work out and I walked out a little woozy. Still, in a 3/4 capacity theater, only one person actually committed to a technicolor yawn.