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Avatar [Theatrical Release] by James Cameron (Director)
Review by Ernest Lilley
20th Century Fox Theatrical Release  ISBN/ITEM#: B002VPE1AM
Date: 31 December 2009

Links: Avatar Official Website / IMDB record / Show Official Info /

James Cameron's latest Sci-Fi Blockbuster is the most expensive and technologically complex movie ever made...but is it the best SF film ever shown? Probably not, but it's up there in the top ten. The lush epic merges fantasy and hard SF while drawing on classic concepts and branching out on its own. Definitely a must see, and it must be seen in 3D at least, or Imax/3D at best, for the maximum immersive experience. Though it had to dig its way out of a sudden blizzard on the Eastern seaboard to find its viewers, it still had an encouraging opening draw. Cameron can only hope the film has the one thing his character wishes he had...legs.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a crippled former marine whose genetic match to his brother's DNA makes him an ideal replacement to drive the avatar created for his brother, who died before he could do the job he'd trained for. Avatars are artificially created human-alien hybrids that can pass as a Navi, the natives of the planet Pandora, a gas giant's moon in the Apha Centauri system, six years from earth, and chock full of a mineral compound that we'd really, really like to have back home. Unfortunately for a eco-system blighted and overpopulated Earth, you can't get it anywhere but on Pandora, in fact it's so rare and precious that it's been given a name typically reserved for SF satires; unobtainium.

Unfortunately for the Navi, their village, housed in a giant tree that looks like a sequoia on steroids, is right on top of the biggest deposit of unobtainium for thousands of kilometers around. Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, who's dealt with her share of soulless corporations, is the head of the science team stationed on Pandora, and her mission is to find a way to get unobtainium without having to wipe out the natives. Not that anyone really expects that to work, but it makes good PR, and since there's the usual soulless corporation behind the whole deal, there is also a military option chomping at the bit.

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Sully, a warrior who's taken the place of his egg-head brother, is caught between two worlds. Grace is determined to make the most of his access to the Navi, who have taken to him precisely because he's a warrior, not a teacher, or corporate negotiator, and hence someone they feel at least the stirrings of kinship with. On the other hand, there's Colonel Miles Quaritch, a hard-assed former force-recon marine that's just waiting for a weapons free order so he can unleash some death from above on a bunch of blue skinned savages. For Sully, once a marine always a marine, so which side he's on isn't really that hard a choice to make...at least at first.

Then the Navi decide to take a chance on him and teach him their ways. Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) the chief's daughter has drawn the short straw to train him, and though he's initially resistant to their tree-hugger crap, he's drawn into the fantasy world of the Navi, whose physiology lets them neurally connect directly with animals, plants, and ultimately the entire planet, which is a giant neural net.

Soon he realizes he's caught between at least three worlds, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure which one he finds most attractive. The only problem is that he's only a human controlling an avatar, not really a Navi at all. Going native just isn't an option as our technology just doesn't go that far.

It's a good storyline, but not especially original. Originality isn't really the point of the exercise though, as the storyline is really here to support the special effects. If it was really deep, you might lose track of all the alien beasties, military technology, spectacular scenery, and hot blue skinned chicks, which would spoil things. The storyline has something for most everyone. Danger, romance, warfare, mystic spirituality, eco-sermons, and heroism. Go ahead and enjoy it.

As Dr. Grace Augustine tells Sully, "Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn't be too hard for you."

The main event though is the special effects tech that brings Avatar to life. You can see the movie in three different formats, 2D, 3D, and Imax 3D. Avatar was clearly designed to make full use of 3D, with a spooky rainforest full of glowing plants and animals, flying dragons, floating mountains, aerial sequences with helicopter gunships, and lots of elements that really make good use of the technology. While most 3D films come off as gimmicked up pieces of cheap sfx, full of spears thrown at the audience and other cheap tricks, Avatar wields the tool to make its environment come alive.

This generation of 3D uses digitally controlled images and polarized glasses rather than the classic red and green plastic film of yesteryear. It's technology that's been around for some time, but is only now making it out into the public in a meaningful way.

While the story may be shallow, the actors aren't. Well, there's not a lot of depth to be plumbed in the bad guys, and actors Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch) and Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge, Corporate Stooge) had little more than cartoon roles to fill out. Not to mention the hordes of security forces that get red-shirted when the natives rise up.

Sigourney Weaver, on the other hand, brings a lot to her role, and it's nice to see her without anything bursting out of her chest...except her chest, which is well padded in her own avatar form, seen wearing a Stanford T shirt, tribute to Ms. Weaver's alma mater. Weaver has commented that her character is in no small part a stand in for Cameron, so it's no wonder that her role has so much impact on the film. Though her Ripley persona in the Aliens movies is part of her acting DNA, she also gets to call on other roles, notably the 1988 Gorillas in the Mist, where she portrayed scientist Diane Fossy and her efforts to study and protect mountain gorillas in the Congo. That film, while devoid of special effects, had terrific emotional impact, and overlaps Avatar in a number of significant ways. If you haven't seen it, see Avatar first, then watch it and compare your reactions.

Still, there's no doubt that Worthington's Sully and Saldana's Neytiri are the stars of Avatar, and both bring a lot to the film. Worthington's transition from Jarhead to Tree-Hugger is played nicely, and bridges the audience's own gap between our world and theirs. Less cerebral than Costner in Dances With Wolves, less angst ridden that Cruise in The Last Samurai, his character has more fun along the way, and brings more of the audience along with him as a result.

It's a pity that Zoe Saldana's Neytiri is a secondary character in the film, but she is. Since she's a Navi, we don't get to see the actress in her human form, but as with all the characters, her features have been mapped onto her Navi body, and the result is lithe and beautiful. Interestingly, the Navi form uses the anime conceit of large eyes, but unlike anime makes the women lean rather than curvaceous. Though our hero makes sure to include women in the fight against the "sky people" as the Terrans are called, and though the Navi females participate in hunting and are totally kick-ass fighters, it's clear that the society is divided along traditional male/female roles.

Men get to be leaders and warriors. Women get to be mystics and mothers.

Though the philosophic underpinnings of Avatar are clearly the Rousseauian notions about noble savages, which have long affected progressive thought, the male/female roles of these societies seem at odds with our notions of equality. That doesn't mean that these goals are unobtainable, but given a non-technological civilization, they're that much harder to achieve.

The literary forerunners of Avatar's screenplay are many. Poul Anderson's classic short story about a crippled scientist remotely exploring Jupiter through an artificial body ("Call Me Joe", Astounding Science Fiction, April 1957) sets the stage, while The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin, (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972) is but one example of the rebellion against colonialism that many SF writers have given voice to since the 50s. The relationship between the flying dragons and the Navi, who choose their riders and form a lifetime mind to mind bond will be immediately familiar to readers of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern stories, and the troubled relationship with natives and their minerals reminds us of Kirk's troubles with Horta in the ST:TOS episode, "Devil in the Darkness" (1967). Of course, the Navi are much better looking than the Horta, which makes them easier to like...but with that reality comes its own indictment of our values.

While not exactly literary, no discussion of the look of Avatar should fail to mention Roger Dean, who's rock album art for Yes featured floating mountains very much like the ones in Avatar. Some may wonder that these precursors don't get screen credits, but these are just a few, and to list them all would be difficult at best, as they have become part of our collective cultural consciousness, and even Cameron is probably aware of only some. You could easily do a dissertation on the many sources for the ideas in Avatar with no fear of running out of material...and I'd like to read it when it's done.

It's been said that fantasy's popularity is in part because it's easy to get, while SF requires an understanding of the genre that most viewers don't have. Watching Avatar, chock full of SF's classic ploys, I think that time may have passed. I doubt that any of the SF tricks and traps show here, and there are plenty, baffle viewers. The good news is that audiences get it. The bad news is that they're robbed of some of the wonder that figuring it out affords.

In final analysis, Avatar is a terrific film, but it's more a vehicle for its special effects than for its story. If the film could have been made back immediately after Titanic, as Cameron had wanted, the story would have had more impact, but today it's not telling us anything audiences don't know. The result of this, and the secondary role of the characters to the show, is that neither plot nor character interplay is likely to hook viewers into coming back over and over, which made Titanic's gross....titanic.

The immersive reality aspect of the film may be enough to bring viewers in for more than one go though, and who knows, it may even spur a new wave of home theater technology so that they can get the experience on the big (home) screen as well.

But that will come later. For now, go see it on the big screen, either in 3D or Imax 3D...but we advise you to pass on the 2D version, which falls short on immersive experience.

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