STUDIO – 20th Century Fox
DIRECTOR – James Cameron
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.
Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.
Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.
True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.
Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).
And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.
There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…
Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.