What It Is
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has a chip on his shoulder. A young and handsome soldier, he’s been tapped to replace his recently dead brother in a grand adventure. It’s 2145, and his scientist sibling had been working with the brilliant xenobotanist Grace (Sigourney Weaver), researching on the planet Pandora with the Na’vi, a tribe of tall, blue athletic beauties who live in complete harmony with their natural environment. Jake has two problems with his new assignment: he resents that Grace expects him to learn about the Na’vi, but he’s also not too keen on the mission’s other half, headed by Administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the brutal Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Like the Company in James Cameron’s Aliens, these guys will destroy any obstacles—living or not—to get what they want, in this case, the rare mineral unobtanium (a brashly named metaphor for oil or any other resource).
The glorious trick in all this is that Jake, in a wheelchair following a spinal injury, gets to live virtually inside a Na’vi body. This avatar, genetically engineered from a mixture of human and Na’vi DNA, allows Jake to lie inside a sensory deprivation tank while his mind melds with the avatar that runs and leaps among the Na’vi, riding boldly green and orange-skinned creatures (some soar in the sky, some thunder along on six legs). Here in the forest he has also an unanticipated “first encounter” with the princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Assigned by her chieftain father Eytukan (Wes Studi) to train Jake, Neytiri is plainly inspired by the Pocahontas myth, a native, huge-eyed beauty who embodies the resources and ideals the intruder has come to exploit. Following Pocahontas’ Captain John Smith, Jake comes to appreciate his teacher. And here again, Cameron borrows from himself, as Jake—like Reese in The Terminator and Leo in Titanic—will also be moved to sacrifice for the sake of his excellent girlfriend.
Why It’s Fun
As this not-so-new plot takes shape over 160-some minutes, Jake and Grace jump back and forth between the lab and the forest. This allows for comparisons between the two realms imagined and constructed by Cameron, in both 3D and IMAX. Reportedly, he’s been working on the concept—and especially the technology—since he was king of the world via Titanic, 12 years ago. And that technology is frequently awesome, as the Na’vi zoom around aboard their flying beasties or jump from tree to tree, fight off big-cat-like wild things or hit back at super-choppers with bows and arrows. These action scenes are vividly colorful, carefully edited so that you can actually see what’s happening (note to Michael Bay), and exciting even when during the slow-motion frames. Against this digital background, Worthington and Saldana concoct convincing motion-capture performances. The scenes back at the lab are less dazzling, though the performers—Weaver especially—are certainly skilled and frankly great fun to watch. As the significantly named Grace, Weaver brings the passion and ingenuity of Ripley, with the wonderful timing and sheer electricity of Dana in Ghostbusters.
Who’s Going To Love It
Viewers under 13 will likely thrill to the action and pretty much ignore the trite melodrama and sloppy politics. Boys of all ages are buying up advance tickets, and the film delivers all kinds of noisy and whizzy techno-fun, more elegant and much cleverer than, say, Transformers. If it’s not quite the paradigm-altering “future of movies” that’s been trumpeted by the promotional campaign, Avatar still marks an advance in the quality of special effects, creating a multi-dimensional fantastic world.
What To Be Aware Of
It’s clear the movie means to deliver violence in loud, explosive, and mostly unbloody form (some warriors on both sides are broken, bloodied, and crashed). As part of that formula, it traffics in a range of oppositional and simplistic stereotypes, whether raced (spiritual native tribe members and crass white warriors) or gendered (earth mother Grace and bad daddy Quaritch). Even the supporting cast is structured according to types, from the sassy pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez, playing the same tough girl she always plays) to the stereotypical nerd Norm (Joel David Moore). As they fight alongside Jake and Grace against the wicked military-industrial complexers, they learn to be better humans, defending the Na’vi. The fact that the Na’vi need to be rescued rehearses and in some respects reverses the usual tale of alien invasion, making the invaders the rapacious humans and the rebels the pure-of-heart locals. The conflict leaves the basic problem intact, and so we’re left hoping that someday, new technology will also inspire new stories.
6 out of 10
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso
Studio: 20th Century Fox
US Premiere: December 18, 2009
UK Premiere: December 17, 2010