Review: Avatar (2009)
January 23, 2010
James Cameron is a legend among directors. Having made his mark with Aliens, and The Terminator, and made history with Titanic, Cameron returns, over a decade later, with Avatar, which has proved to be an almost unparalleled box office phenomenon, having already made more money than any other film in history, save Cameron’s own Titanic.
Avatar is the tale of an ex-marine paraplegic named Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) who is offered a chance to take his recently deceased brother’s place on an expedition to the alien planet of Pandora at the behest of ‘The Corporation.’ Pandora is a tropical planet with a toxic atmosphere, and is home to an exotic menagerie of dangerous fauna and fantastic plant life that puts the Amazon Rainforest to shame (including mountain-sized trees that practically drip awesomeness), and an native alien race called the Na’vi, who are humanlike but are ten feet tall, blue, and have tails and glow-in-the-dark freckles.
The flora and fauna, and the natives, are naturally all peripheral to what The Corporation is really after on Pandora, which is a wildly valuable ore, that unfortunately lies in massive deposits beneath the ancestral home of the Na’vi. Jake Sully and a team of human scientists, led by the gruff Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) are tasked with “winning the hearts and minds” of the natives through the avatar program. The Corporation synthesized human and Na’vi DNA and grew avatars, which are Na’vi bodies that the scientists can synchronize brains with, using their Na’vi bodies to explore Pandora and interact with the natives, while their human bodies lie safe back at the base. Jake’s task is to integrate into Na’vi society, and convince them to relocate, so that The Corporation can strip-mine the area for ore. However, the more time Jake spends with the warrior princess Neytiri, and becoming one of the Na’vi, the more he begins to questions his loyalties.
First things first: Avatar is a spell-bindingly beautiful movie. It really is an astonishing visual achievement. Cameron and company have lovingly crafted the best-looking alien world of all time. The forests and inhabitants of Pandora are a visual treat, and the two thousand foot trees and floating mountains (oh! the floating mountains!) are some of the coolest environs I have ever seen. While the CGI is impressive (and it is), the cinematography is equally pretty, no doubt influenced by some of the impressive technology that allowed Cameron to have essentially limitless control over camera placement and movement. Avatar is indeed one of the best-looking movies of all time.
Sadly, it is not one of the brightest. This movie really is primarily about the spectacle, and it is plain to see that the script took a backseat to the visuals. Which seems all the more odd because of all the work that otherwise went into creating the world. (Like creating the entire Na’vi language!) Anyone who has ever seen a movie will know exactly what’s going to transpire after the first 10 minutes. Character-wise, everyone is pretty boilerplate. You have the money-grubbing, power-hungry corporate bureaucrat. The scorched-earth commander with a chip on his shoulder. The awkward science geek. The quiet, elderly chief. The hot-headed brave. The beautiful native warrior-princess. Sigourney Weaver‘s Dr. Augustine is an oddly uneven character. Evidently, a significant amount of the film was cut to achieve the 160+ minute runtime, and perhaps some of the scenes that were cut would have helped Dr. Augustine’s scene-to-scene progression seem smoother. Jake Sully on the other hand is likeable enough, with motivations that are generally both compelling and realistic, and watching him get his legs back through his avatar is one of the film’s highlights. Michelle Rodriguez‘s pilot character steals every scene she is in, (not enough!) and may have been my favorite character.
The script isn’t bad, for the most part, just unremarkable, but it gets the job done. Every so often something will surface that seems almost lazy: like naming the precious ore “unobtainium.” Really? That’s the best you could do? And some lines are just plain inept: “why me?” “because you have a strong heart.” Come on. That’s pretty hokey, even for the Na’vi; who are, incidentally, a little bit creepy. What with all the hissing, “interfacing” with their mounts, their odd loincloth/thong/tail-bridle clothing, and mild-but-ever-present blue indigenous nudity. But I didn’t care at all, because the visual scope was otherwise so magnificent, and watching it all unfold was just so pretty. The story is a pretty clear-cut good vs. evil affair, and the evil corporate mercenaries are evil enough that it’s easy to cheer for the Na’vi.
Technologically and visually, Avatar is a masterpiece, and that’s what really matters in this case, because it really is all about the spectacle. If you have a chance to see it while it is still in theaters, go, because if there were ever a movie made to be seen in theaters, this is it.
4 out of 5 zipped lips.