Avatar (2009)
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Running Time: 2 hrs, 42 min
Rated: PG-13

Review by Brother Reed

The story for James Cameron’s record-breaking 3-D adventure extravaganza, Avatar, is a mosaic of elements from countless different movies; including but not limited to Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Fern Gully, this year’s Surrogates (though the idea for Avatar likely pre-dates that film), and even Cameron’s own Aliens. Yet despite not having an original bone in its 10-foot-tall blue body, Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Avatar is not so much a movie as it is an event. It’s James Cameron’s first full-length narrative movie since his gold-plated Titanic; it has been hyped as a revolutionary next step in movie special effects; it’s already become the highest grossing movie of all time; and thanks to the 3-D hook it has been touted as a movie you must see in theaters. Which is utterly true. In fact, let me say that again. You must see this movie in a theater. In 3-D. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact that would be lost in any other situation. If you wait for the DVD you may as well forget it, which tells me something important about this movie. In 10 years Avatar will definitely be remembered for its box-office numbers and its contribution to how movies are made and marketed. Yet as film in itself that seems doubtful. Like a cover model or a head cheerleader, Avatars success comes down to the fact that it’s really, really pretty.

And oh man, is it ever pretty. Avatar is easily the most breathtakingly beautiful movie I have ever witnessed. It’s not even a contest. I was impressed by King Kong a few years ago with its velvety texture and flawless motion-capture, but this is on a completely different level. Believe it or not, it actually is comparable in some way to seeing Star Wars or Jurassic Park for the first time. I wasn’t a moviegoer in 1977 (or an anything-goer for that matter) but I can imagine the exhilaration that audiences must have felt during the trench run in A New Hope. I was a moviegoer in 1993 when Jurassic Park was released and I experienced the childhood wonder at the lifelike Tyrannosaurus. There are a few sequences in Avatar that gave me a similar kind of rush – that pure lost-in-the-moment adrenaline that only certain movies can give. Comparison to those great films is a huge compliment; and while due to other factors Avatar is not their equal, know that theater patrons are still in for something special.

For one, the 3-D effects are spectacular. Earlier this year I went to see Toy Story and Toy Story 2 rereleased in 3-D. For those movies – not originally created to be viewed in 3-D – the effect was interesting but not compelling. It made it so that the foreground characters seemed distinct from the background, but even though there were no carnival-style objects popping out at me it still seemed like more of a gimmick. Avatar is a different story. The 3-D here is astounding – it gives a real illusion of depth. Some of the most intriguing shots for me were mostly still compositions inside the soldiers’ base on Pandora or in their shuttle. As you look into the room, rather than perceiving the shot as foreground or background, it seems that each section is rendered with the same clarity as the others all the way back to the vanishing point. The effect is uncanny at first and it takes a while to get used to having so much area where your eyes can focus. Initially, the 3-D looks better in those still shots. In an early chase sequence, I found it hard to see what was happening during quick motion. However that feeling left me probably a third of the way through and I noticed no such difficulty with the action scenes near the end. No matter what was in the shot, it was all so gorgeous I felt privileged just to sit and stare at it.

The more I look at this picture, the less I understand it.

Although the filmmakers could probably have wowed me with crisp 3-D versions of staplers, silverware, or Keanu Reeves, thankfully they put actually interesting things in their movie instead. The world of Pandora is lushly conceived, lovingly detailed, and bursting with indigenous life. It isn’t long before our heroes make their first forays into the inhospitable jungle (where, as their Colonel informs them, every living thing wants to kill and eat them) and encounter vicious alien flora and fauna. The creature designs are a little bit outrageous at times but generally pretty strong. Most of the work went into the Na’vi themselves, the lithe, ocean-skinned native peoples of Pandora. These are giant humanoid beings who live in a tribal fashion, at peace with their habitat. They look motion-captured, and indeed are based on their human puppeteers. The Na’vi avatars controlled by human scientists look oddly like the actors who portray them. Sigourney Weaver’s avatar looks so much like her it’s the least bit creepy.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to provide a quick plot summary so you know what I’m talking about. The story is that a human team of military and researchers have come to the scenic moon of Pandora primarily to harvest an extremely valuable mineral called Unobtainium (which might as well be called MacGuffinium). To do this, they need to get at the land inhabited by the Na’vi who are stubborn and hardy. The scientists want to study their culture and the big-wigs want to convince them to migrate away from the Unobtainium deposits so that they can be excavated. It is to this end that the avatars were created – biological Na’vi replicas made from a fusion of human and alien material. These bodies can be piloted remotely by humans who link into them and then experience the world through them. This holds particular appeal for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine whose avatar excursions allow him freedom of motion that he no longer possesses otherwise. When he gets lost on Pandora, he meets up with a beautiful Na’vi girl named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who must teach him to live among her people. Predictably, he becomes infatuated with their culture and helps them fight the military force to which he belongs.

All of that is in the trailer, so you needn’t complain about spoilers. There’s nothing plot-wise in this movie you won’t see coming. If you think you’ve got it figured out, chances are you’re right. Everything follows an inevitable path and formula we’ve seen many times. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a genre film, of course. Great stories can still come in familiar packages, and to Avatar’s credit, it does manage to feel fairly new between the glossy 3-D and the radical landscapes. However that brings us back to the visuals. There are no characters who really stand out, other than possibly the Colonel who plays it over-the-top. Worse yet, the script is lacking – filled with cliches and almost no memorable quotes. Some of the dialog is outright bad and the acting goes along with it. Even Sam Worthington in the lead role seems unconvincing at times, almost as though he’s changing accents. There are moments of intended power that I imagine will produce giggles on subsequent viewings, though I was honestly pretty wrapped up in everything the first time around to the point that it wasn’t a big problem.

“Enhance… hey, is that Papyrus font?”

A bigger issue may be the length. How many vapid blockbuster movies need to be three hours long? We do find ourselves immersed deeply in Pandora during that time and the story seems full of plot threads, but where is the smart character development? Shouldn’t that time be used to create some sort of attachment to these people? If they were expecting me to automatically side with the peaceful Na’vi they’re going to have to work harder. I’ve seen too many movies that promote blind primitivism. It’s almost a worship of the kind of earthy spiritism that they suppose the Native Americans had (and yes the comparisons between the Na’vi and the Native Americas are pretty close to the surface). There’s a lot of stereotyping going on on both sides, with the military portrayed in Colonel Quaritch as mindlessly violent money-grubbers. There are some buried allusions to the war on terror (the military invading in order to mine natural resources) which don’t sit well with me even though it’s what I kind of expected. I understand that black-and-white portrayals make for good red-blooded action stories but would it have killed them to be a little more subtle?

I feel like I should be playing up Avatar’s shortcomings as a true piece of cinema, but I couldn’t help enjoying myself even with the hammy presentation and plot. It most certainly is art in the visual sense, and is an absolute lock for a visual effects Oscar. You can see why this movie cost an estimated 300 million to make – practically every shot is crammed with CG effects and they look good. Not totally natural, but in a fantasy setting I don’t think they have to be. Perhaps more importantly, Cameron proves he can still direct action. I’m not a big fan of war movies and so as the film was ramping up to the action-packed finale I was not terribly excited. Once it started though, it was a spectacle of dizzying proportions that totally caught me up.

It may not be a great movie but it’s at least very good. If you took away the visuals you wouldn’t have much, but that’s true of any movie. Film is a visual medium and so I don’t begrudge the artists and technicians their commitment to taking those visuals to the next level. With a more insightful script this had the potential to be a film for the ages. Let’s hope it leads to better films with less indulgent application of the same technology. If you want movie magic that makes you “ooh” and “ahh,” Avatar is your ticket. Grab those 3-D glasses, sit back, and watch the fireworks.