So the time has finally come and 2009 is letting out one final push this weekend with James Cameron’s Avatar. Let me first start this off by saying that I have been waiting for god knows how long for him to submerge from his underwater adventures and finally get back to do the thing we all wanted him to do, which is making movies. Well, I’m glad he’s back, because Avatar was honestly a good return for him and a good movie for the masses. Warning, minor/major spoilers ahead.
In case you don’t know the story, let me break it down in a way that you can picture it: imagine the premise of The Last Samurai mixed with some Fern Gully and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (played decently by Sam Worthington) jumps into an alien/human hybrid in the stead of his dead brother. Then, he gets lost and captured by the Na’vi, the dominant alien race filled with warriors and hunters and alien horses that still look like horses, oddly enough. In the line of Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise before him, he takes to their ways and fights back against the evil military/corporate goons that are trying to destroy them to get to a mineral deposit ( that they literally called unobtainium in this movie. Wow.) Truthfully, this movie’s story and plot is a B-, at best. The only thing going for it in this department is that everyone plays their part competently (in the case with Worthington and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri) or downright good ( Sigourney Weaver as Dr Grace Augustine. and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker the slimly corporate goon).
Honestly, where this movie really shines is, undoubtedly, in the visuals. I watched it in 3D, with some trepidation mind you, as I don’t really see how it adds to the experience for most movies. Cameron went out of his way to make sure that it did, however. Halfway through the movie I stopped noticing it and was just engrossed by how well done it was integrated into the movie. Pandora was stunning, although the wildlife was a bit peculiar at times (you can definitely tell what the director has been doing for the last couple of years). From the Hallelujah Mountains to the Home Tree, the locations created were an incredible sight. The true centerpiece was how well the capture was done on the actors when in their avatar forms. Granted, other movies have also done great work, but it does take something else to make 8 foot tall blue people move and look real. This is definitely true for when Dr. Augustine is in her avatar form; Weaver and Saldana really do pop out from under the CG work.
As far as the Na’vi themselves, the aforementioned capture work made them very watchable, but thematically they weren’t too astounding. The Native American/African vibe they gave off was a bit overdone, and did add to an overall cliché feeling of this being just a space cowboys versus aliens epic. I can understand why going with something that goes off the monoculture that hard would be good for a worldwide audience. Again, I think a more alien approach would have been more interesting, but with a 2 hour 40 minute run time, I don’t think the crowds would have enjoyed a treatise on Na’vi culture.The one interesting aspect of the world in of itself was the neural connectivity bit for the trees, but it gets treated more like an environmentalism trope than it does a cool alien concept.
Speaking of message, others have already been mentioning the whole imperialism/ white guilt fantasy aspect of this movie. I have in the past bemoaned the fact there is s severe lack of ethnic love in the sci-fi genre, but truthfully, I’m not going to go angry brown man on this movie. It would just seem silly to when the movie clearly doesn’t care about cultural divides anywhere past the “he’s a demon, kill him!” and “you are not one of us” lines. I’m not expecting sociopolitical insight from popcorn movies.
Overall, I’d have to say that Avatar was a movie that despite the tired story and plot, was completely saved and uplifted by amazing effects and an well-done world building. I am really interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes of this movie when it comes out, I want to see all the ideas and tricks involved with making this work. Whether this movie will be as revolutionary as they want it to be is anyone’s guess, but it will definitely get other studios thinking about the possibilities.