By now I would bet that you've heard all manner of stuff about James Cameron's ultra-lavish 3-D spectacular, AVATAR, but since you read this site — replete as it is with endless ruminations on movies and what does or does not make them work — you're most likely interested in Yer Bunche's take on the ALIENS director's latest effort. Well, I'm getting to that shortly, but first here's what you need to know about the story.
AVATAR takes place in the year 2154 on Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus, and tracks the journey of paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who replaces his murdered brother on a fascinating mission: the RDA corporation seeks to exploit the vast resources of Pandora — most notably the ridiculously-named "Unobtainium" — and essentially render the place an environmentally raped place like the Earth (which we're told is now pretty much barren and bereft of anything green on its surface, which would make the planet uninhabitable, but I digress...), but standing in the way of this environmental-rape is an indigenous people, the semi-feline and 10-foot tall Na'vi. Since Pandora's atmosphere is not breathable by humans, irascible Dr. Grace Augustine (my girl Sigourney Weaver, rocking the screen yet again in her sci-fi element) has developed the Avatar Program, in which a genetically engineered body spliced from human and Na'vi DNA is grown and into which a human operator's consciousness may be transferred in an effort to mingle with and get to know the natives. Sully takes his brother's place in the program (by dint of his DNA being compatible with his brother's avatar, plus his handy military/defensive skills as a soldier) but he has no training in the ways and language of the natives, an aspect that doesn't suit Dr. Augustine at all, but what choice has she got?
Unbeknownst to Dr. Augustine, Jake is tasked by testosterone/sadism-fueled Col. Quaritch (a superb villainous turn by Stephen Lang) with using his avatar form to infiltrate the Na'vi and convince them to vacate the territory designated for mining or face the most dire of consequences for non-compliance. Given a window of three months to accomplish his mission, Sully ends up getting thrust head-first into the Na'vi way of life when he's accidentally separated from his team of fellow avatars and rescued from Pandora's hungry fauna by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful native and member of the Omaticaya tribe.
Pandoran forest native Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the jungle girl/huntress fantasy archetype transplanted to science-fiction.
Assigned by her people's shaman (who also happens to be her mother) to teach Sully the ways of the Na'vi after signs that he may be favored by their deity, the mother goddess Eywa, the huntress and the Earthman grow close and Sully "goes native" with a vengeance and finds himself becoming more Na'vi as his very literal connection with their world grows with each passing day, a state of self-realization and enlightenment that directly conflicts with his orders and sets in motion a horrifying clash of technological superiority and corporate greed with Pandora's rightful inhabitants. But what the humans don't realize is that there's more going on here than just callously kicking the collective ass of an entire world's people...
One of the critical brickbats hurled at AVATAR is that it's derivative of several works, DANCES WITH WOLVES being the most frequently cited parallel, but since it's basically a sci-fi allegory about heavily-armed greed/superiority-driven assholes bent on destroying a way of life they neither understand nor care about and one of their own recognizing what's wrong with that outlook and siding with the people he was sent to lay waste to, I doubt there's much that could be done to put an original spin on the narrative, be it science-fictionalized or not. The film was also pre-judged for the look of the Na'vi, namely that the CGI that brings them to life was not very convincing, prompting some wags to declare the film to be "CAPTAIN PLANET with cats" before they'd actually seen the movie. I admit that I have often pre-judged movies by virtue of their trailers or pre-release posters — Jackie Chan's upcoming THE SPY NEXT DOOR being the most recent example of that propensity — and to some degree I don't blame the aforementioned wags, but I'm here to tell you there's nothing to gripe about in regard to the rendering of the Na'vi. In fact, once viewers get past the whole derivative thing, there's a hell of a lot to enjoy in AVATAR. Lemme break down what you need to know:
- The film is a very compelling two-and-a-half hours long and you will not want to miss a moment of it, so going to the bathroom before the movie starts is very strongly advised.
- While perhaps a tad preachy, the story will draw you in in spite of that aspect, simply because we all know that decimating indigenous populations is a terrible, grievous wrong that can never really be redressed. The tragedy looms from the story's setup and percolates throughout the film's running time, placing the Na'vi in a seemingly over-matched position and leaving Jake to betray both his own species and, by initial intent of his actions, his new-found people.
- The look of the Na'vi takes a little getting used to since, in my opinion, CGI still has a way to go before it can truly craft realistic-looking humanoid forms, faces and expressions, and as of this writing I would say the benchmark for completely believable CGI characters was set by Andy Sirkis' motion-captured performance as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Coupled with some superior CGI, Sirkis' work brought the character to vivid life, and while not as good as the efforts seen there, I would give the Na'vi an A-minus for believability. Plus, as the film progresses, any perceived deficiencies are rendered negligible by the audience getting to care about the Pandoran natives and want to see them win out over the human assholes.
- The entire cast turn in solid performances but the three heavy hitters are Sigourney Weaver as sci-fi cinema's answer to Margaret Mead, Stephen Lang as a hardened nightmare of slash-and-burn militarism made flesh, and Zoe Saldana as the huntress Neytiri. I mentioned Andy Sirkis' Gollum earlier as the standard-bearer for quality motion-captured acting, and now I champion Saldana's work as Neytiri to be second only to Sirkis and one of the film's chief assets. Even setting aside my own well-documented fascination for jungle girl characters, I adored every moment Neytiri was on screen because first and foremost she is a solid character, and she is completely fucking awesome in every way.
- The film's 3-D is excellent and it is less concerned with sticking things in your face than it is with creating a "you are there" sense of depth perception meant to place the viewer firmly within the narrative's environments, be they technological or eco-system organic, and it succeeds mightily. I know some of you have difficulty with viewing the 3-D process through those Clark Kent-looking glasses, but it didn't bother me at all, and I have to wear those ugly bastards over my own spectacles. That said, individual results are likely to vary.
- If you plan on seeing AVATAR at all, you must see it on the largest screen possible and make sure that you're seeing a 3-D screening because it's also playing in standard 2-D, so be sure what you're seeing when you purchase your tickets. The film is a visual feast, en effect's-lover's multiple-orgasm if you will, so it must be seen in the format for which it was made. When it hits DVD it will lose so much of its grandeur that it will almost be a completely different cinematic experience, so do not, repeat, DO NOT miss it on the big screen.