When James Cameron’s $250 million, eons-in-the-making science-fiction epic finally reached theaters nationwide, it didn’t live up to the massive amount of hype that preceded it.
It’s still pretty darned impressive.
Avatar’s story arc is familiar territory. Avatar’s everything else is new and breathtaking. Hell, “visionary” is justified. With Pandora and the Na’vi, Cameron’s created the most nuanced, fully realized alien race and environment that I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. The imagery is frequently awe-inspiring. The scenes of Pandora’s lush forests and alien wildlife are achingly beautiful. Comparisons to Star Wars are apt. The experience of seeing that movie wasn’t like anything we’d ever known before. From that point forward, filmmakers had a whole new paint box with which to realize their visions. Those are the feelings I left Avatar with. It’s the penultimate “Oh, wow” experience, probably comparable to what early moviegoers who saw their first color film felt.
Anyway, the synopsis. Earth’s become a blasted wasteland, so now we need to strip-mine other worlds for the resources we need. Enter Pandora, a world rich in unobtanium (Cameron, did you really need to call it that?) The Na’vi, Pandora’s indigenous population is a problem. There’s a whole tribe of the savages living on top of Pandora’s richest deposit. If they’re slaughtered for the mineral, it could turn into a PR nightmare.
There might be a solution. Avatars.
Avatars are replicas of Na’vi, each controlled by a human subject who transfers their consciousness into the Avatar. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has been in charge of the Avatar project, but she’s too interested in research and feel-good diplomacy to get results.
Enter Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine offered the opportunity to participate in the Avatar program. Ostensibly, he’ll work under Dr. Augustine, but he’ll be reporting clandestinely to Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch needs to know if there’s any genuine chance the Na’vi can be displaced peacefully. He needs to know that soon. We’ve got unobtanium to harvest.
Sully gets closer to the Na’vi than anyone had dared to dream. He wins the trust of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and eventually learns the ways of the local tribe and is initiated into their ranks. He also learns that there’s no way the Na’vi will leave their homeland voluntarily. That’s all Quaritch and the corporate heads back on base need to know. PR nightmare or not, it’s showtime.
Now the problem is that Sully’s embraced the Na’vi’s way of life and what the corporation has in mind for them is an obscenity. He’s gone native all the way, and even though the odds against the Na’vi look hopeless, they’re not going down without a fight.
Cameron’s script doesn’t have the same meticulous attention to detail that his back story and visuals have; the man deals in broad strokes, not nuanced line work. It’s not a major drawback, though. Those broad strokes are compelling. Cameron’s script is heavy on allegory; it’s loaded with references to Western corporate imperialism past and present. Cool by me. Indigenous people in the Amazon, in Africa, and any other resource-rich locale are displaced and massacred without a second thought every day. If Cameron’s film can heighten awareness and spark outrage over this, more power to him.
Cameron’s always had a gift for bringing great casts together. He sure has a good one on Avatar. Worthington does a beautiful job depicting Sully’s passage from a stereotypical Good Soldier to a man who’s been awakened to a better way of living and something truly worth fighting for. Weaver’s in fine form; she’s wonderful playing a hardass with a heart. Still, I got the greatest charge out of seeing Joel David Moore in this. He was brilliant in a cheeseball horror-comedy called and he’s brilliant in his supporting role as Norm, a science geek who’s gotten his dream job on Pandora controlling an Avatar. He’s funny, compassionate, and shows a lot of steel when war erupts. I hope he gets another high-profile gig again soon.
I’m no Cameron fan. I admire the vision and intensity of his best work (I’m still madly in love with The Abyss), but more often, I’ve found his movies to be dreary, lumbering chores to sit through. Not this time. Avatar’s a technical marvel with heart and soul, a truly great movie. See this one. You’ll never forget the experience.