Avatar Review (2009) Review (PG-13) (With Minor Spoilers)
SPOILER ALERT! Nothing major, but this does contain a few small spoilers…. Now on with the show.Jim Cameron’s Avatar is SO overwhelmingly spectacular in its visuals and pacing that it more than made up for its story flaws. I’ve never been disappointed with any of his movies (But I’ve never seen his horror comedy masterpiece about flying fish: Piranha 2… at least not all of it). All of his films since ‘The Terminator’, have been innovative whether it be the ideas or the new technology employed.
If you’ve read anything about Avatar, I’m sure you’ve heard about the story being ‘dismissed’ as ‘Dances With Wolves’ in space. That’s fair to a degree; there are a lot of elements in Avatar that seem to be borrowed from other movies (even from Cameron’s previous films). It was predictable throughout (such as the ‘Braveheart’ speech to rally the Na’Vi troops), but sometimes the way that a movie is told gives a little more weight to a flimsy story.
The film takes place on the hostile yet beautiful (rain forest on phosphorescent steroids) environment of Pandora. There are lots of dangerous creatures running around (created by Cameron and his army of artists) that are ready to trample or eat the human invaders.
The very air is toxic,also, and oxygen masks have to be worn by anyone visiting from Earth. I assume that Earth’s atmosphere is also toxic, since it’s noted in the film that ‘we’ve destroyed earth’s environment’ and earth ‘has been abandoned’.
The main story of Avatar is very heavy handed in its characterizations and a bit cliched with the exception (maybe) of the male and female leads. The ‘villains’ of the movie are 2 Hollywood standbys: the Evil Big Corporation and the Military. I won’t comment too much on that, but I get a little aggravated when Hollywood makes statements about Corporate Greed when one ticket to watch Avatar, one small popcorn and one soda costs almost 25 bucks and that’s not even at an Imax theater, but I digress ($11.50 per ticket?!)….
One of the earth visitors is Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine, played by Sam Worthington.
He is recruited to replace his brother in the expensive Avatar program because his twin brother has just died tragically and they share the same DNA (each avatar is a ‘custom fit’ to the DNA of their user.
Avatars are bodies created out of a combination of human DNA and the Na’Vi (Pandora’s native inhabitants: giant blue catlike humanoids). The Evil Corporation wants a a valuable natural resource native to Pandora hilariously named Unobtanium (spelling?).
Apparently, most of it is located below the Na’Vi’s Sacred Tree of Souls that is a tree that looks like it’s about 10000 feet tall. The Evil Corporation wants to either use these Avatar’s to convince the Na’Vi to relocate or use the accompanying Marines to take the Unobtanium by force.
Jake takes to the Avatar experience with an enthusiasm that the others can’t relate to, since it gives him the ability to walk again.
While learning how to act as a Na’Vi, Jake becomes kind of a double agent. As an Avatar, he works closely with researchers who are mostly interested in learning about Pandora and its tribal populace.
Sigourney Weaver who seems to be reprising her Diane Fossey role from Gorillas In The Mist, plays Dr. Grace Augustine, who is the head of the research scientists. She literally has written the book on Pandora and the Na’Vi and is one of the ‘ambassadors’ to the Na’Vi. For some reason her Avatar’s appearance was a little funnier to me than the rest of them.
Meanwhile, Jake is (secretly) giving information about the Na’Vi and their ways to Marine Colonel Quaritch who is preparing for the inevitability (he feels) for conflict. He promises Jake that if he does as Quaritch asks, he will ensure that Jake gets a very expensive operation to restore his ability to walk, which Jake agrees to. Naturally, this causes lots of conflict later on.
Lang and Worthington
Basically, the researchers are all good guys and the rest of the human race are bad guys, with 2 exceptions. Jake and Trudy, a Marine Pilot, played by Michelle Rodriguez.
She’s kind of in the ‘Vasquez’ role (from Cameron’s ‘Aliens’), but she’s not a musclehead like the rest of the Marines in the movie.
Luckily, for plot convenience, she’s the lone Marine sympathetic to the plight of the Na’Vi AND she happens to be the pilot assigned to the researchers. If she wasn’t this movie would’ve been a whole lot shorter and would have ended on a sour note.
The movie really steps into high gear when Jake gets separated from the other Avatars while acting as an escort for Dr. Augustine. There is a search and rescue attempt that is called off and Jake is forced to try to survive the night in Pandora’s harsh terrain where everything wants to make a meal of him.
The lovingly rendered Neytiri
Enter Neytiri, one of the Na’Vi, who saves Jake from becoming lunch for some of the forest creatures in a not so meet-cute sort of way. Neytiri is given life by Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana via motion capture performance.
She’s not human, but has one of the strongest female leads of the year, IMO.
Saldana probably won’t get any nominations for her role, but she should. The character was a great example of the love interest being more than just the love interest. She was probably the most emotional character in Avatar.
It kind of saddens me, though, when you can use that ‘most animated character in the movie’ joke, as in Lord of The Rings (Gollum) or the lesser nonfunny Star Wars trilogy (Yoda).
Of course Sam Worthington also did a great job in the lead, first as the wheelchair bound human, but mostly as the Na’Vi avatar. He seems to be one of those actors that can play every role with believability.
At first viewing, I really wasn’t impressed by Stephen Lang’s character so much as by what Jim Cameron and the screenplay had him do: his actions….
After watching this again, I have to admit that I was wrong about that. For the most part, his performance was workmanlike, and he was most interesting in action sequences (his last scene is his best scene and one of the more memorable sequences of the film)… BUT…. I think he played the character as he should have. He was playing a no-nonsense Marine Officer and that’s how he played him. Understated even in some of the most spectacular scenes in the movie.
I also have to take back my first take on Giovanni Ribisi’s character. He wasn’t quite as one note as I thought on the first viewing. It still wasn’t the most 3-dimensional character, but I think Selfridge (Ribisi’s character) sidesteps cliche…. but just barely. He added a couple of laughs, too.
I won’t give anything else away. As I said, it’s a bit predictable in a way, but still highly enjoyable. Besides the beautifully rendered terrain (including the ‘floating mountains’), there were some incredibly well done action and war scenes. George Lucas should take note of these.
There were times where there were scores of things happening onscreen, but still didn’t seem like clutter. The CGI artists also got the issue of weight right. The thing that separates this movie’s FX from CRAP movie FX like those in GI Joe or the Incredible Hulk, is that the creatures and objects in Avatar move as though they have some weight to them. On top of that Cameron knows to not speed the camera movement to that of a hummingbird, so that the audience can follow the action.
I have to take a moment to comment on the vegetation and terrain of Pandora for a moment. Very early on in the movie, I had to remind myself that I was looking at an entirely computer generated landscape.
The night scenes, not as much because of the many phosphorescent plants and animals, but I knew going in how they did this and was still somewhat fooled.
Cameron paid attention to the smaller details in the movie, also, such as shots of Jake Sully’s atrophied legs. There is much in Avatar that he doesn’t point out to the viewer, but it’s there if you’re paying attention. Another detail I recall was the idea of Dr. Augustine’s book Na’Vi. Instead of some future version of the Kendall, they’re still a paperbound indication by Cameron that, even after we’ve destroyed all of Earth’s forests, we still have the need to cut down trees and make paper products for our amusement.
The behaviors of the Na’Vi tribes borrowed heavily from various human cultures. There was a mishmash of customs that were borrowed from Native Americans, African and Indian cultures that I recognized.
I think the major drawback of the movie was that Cameron was so eager to preach his eco-message and his political slant that it distracted greatly from the film. I have no problem with having any particular point that the director is trying to make, but in this case it came off as Cameron preaching. Each obvious shot that he took at the Bush administration took you right out of the experience of the film and some of his terrorist theories in this film that he proposed as intelligent thought sounded ignorant and uninformed. A little subtlety would have been advisable. Despite this and the weakness in characterization/story, the movie can still be enjoyed to a GREAT degree.
I hope I haven’t sounded too sour about Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Truly, Avatar seems tailor made for me. I read that Roger Ebert commented that “I felt sort of the same as when I saw “Star Wars” in 1977″. I kind of share that sentiment.
I was personally trying to think of a movie that was as awe-inspiringly impressive (at the time) as this one…. But, Star Wars may be the right comparison. Not saying this one as good as Star Wars was (and will be the cultural phenomena that that was), but FX wise, it was an amazing movie to behold. 4.5 out of 5 whatevers. Now I have to go back and see it again.
And one last thing. I have to commend Jim Cameron for caring how his movies turn out. He does have that rare ability (it seems to be rare, anyway), of being able to make a quality artistic endeavor that is accessible and commercially viable. Very few directors outside of Stephen Spielberg have that particular talent.
But, I think that it comes down to caring about how his art turns out and not just about having fun on an expensive set or winning awards. Sam Raimi said once that he makes movies to ‘uplift’ the audience (and has failed in that endeavor on occasion… Sorry Sam, I had to say it). I think Cameron’s movies continue to do that. They’re always enjoyable.
4.5 of 5