Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 162 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
How do I praise a film I think the movie industry would have been better off without? That I couldn't care less that I've gotten to Avatar this late reveals a lot about my interest level. Despite being presented with many opportunities to check it out in the theater over the past few months I passed on every one. I just had no desire to see it, which isn't unusual. There are a lot of movies released in a given year that don't interest me, it's just that none of them have been the most popular, highest grossing movie of all-time until now. I'm a huge sci-fi fan, but also sometimes a picky one who prefers character driven stories to fantasy, so this didn't look like it was in my wheelhouse at all.
I also disagree with those who believe a movie has to be "experienced" in a theater for maximum impact. If it does, chances are it probably has little else going for it other than special effects. That was probably my biggest beef with the film's success and why I stayed away from it. That and I hate the fact that every movie (whether warranted or not) is now being released in 3-D and they can jack up the ticket prices as long as everyone's eating it up. It's fair to blame James Cameron for all of this, yet it isn't. He tried to make the best movie he could and can't be held completely responsible for studios trying to capitalize on its success. When Star Wars was released in 1977 the same charges were leveled against George Lucas, and though that film negatively impacted movies in a similar way and ushered in the era of big effects driven blockbusters, the story and characters were the primary focus.
From my perspective the fallout from Avatar has been disastrous, but I promised myself if I ever saw the film (and there was legitimate doubt whether I would) I'd be objective in judging what's on screen, not the numerous problems it's release caused. So no, it isn't the most amazing thing I've ever seen but I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and as much as it pains me to admit, it's an undeniably great piece of entertainment that still plays very well on DVD. While mind-blowing visuals rule the day, the narrative is never sacrificed because of it and the few small issues I did have were the opposite of what I expected. Of course, the effects are unlike anything we've seen but given the amount of time and effort Cameron poured into the project and the hype it got, anything less would almost be considered unacceptable. Still, they're astounding, even on a flat-screen LCD.
What really threw me for a loop were the performances and how how caught up in the drama I became. What I didn't care for was all the spiritual and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that fought for dominance over the actual story, especially in the film's action-packed final hour. It seemed someone (I'm guessing Cameron) had an inexplicable desire to make an obvious eco-friendly message movie that would best be appreciated by Al Gore. To an extent, every film is a message movie in that it has a point of view but in this case beating us over the head with it isn't necessary because everything else works so well. It's a minor complaint, but a worthy one especially when the lesson is so trite and fails in telling us anything we didn't already know. But that the picture only suffers slightly from this is a real credit to Cameron's skills as a storyteller and action director.
The plot is practically common knowledge by now. It's the year 2154 on the planet Pandora and paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is selected to replace his deceased twin brother in a corporate-run program in which humans are remotely immersed in the indigenous population of the gigantic, blue-skinned Na'vi via "avatars." As the new chosen one, Jake's allegiances are torn between Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who have opposing philosophies regarding the goals for the operation and how interaction with the Na'vi should be handled. Whereas Quaritch wants Jake to gain their trust in order to procure valuable intelligence so he can violently displace them, Augustine is interested in opening the lines of communication with the species and protecting their culture. Jake is taken under the wing of a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who teaches him the ways of her people and he becomes emotionally attached, questioning his allegiances. This sets him and the Na'vi people on a violent collision course with Quaritch.
Despite claims to the contrary, this is a strong story with performances to match it. There's no mistaking that the CG and visuals take precedence but none of it would have mattered if not narratively presented in a way that do them justice and makes sense. Cameron, like George Lucas, will never be be accused of being a master scribe or having a great ear for dialogue but he's an effective storyteller who knows how to craft a compelling sci-fi tale around action scenes and write strong characters. There are very few surprises in the story and there's never any real doubt how he's going to get there but he really knows how to get there better than most.
Summing up the well-told but not completely original plot as Ferngully meets Pocahantas might be a little harsh and overly reductive, but there's some truth to it. That didn't bother me though since it is presented in a visually fresh and interesting way. There are so few original stories out there and everything seems taken from something else, or at least incorporating elements from something else, that I'll just settle for the story not being told stupidly or coming off as a total knock-off. This didn't even come close to doing either, but when the focus was on the action the film flowed much better for me than when it was attempting to make viewers feel an emotional or spiritual connection to the story. In that regard the inter-species romance in the story surprisingly fared better than anything else.
I was absorbed and impressed throughout, but never really moved and part of the problem is that it's message of being at one with nature is being told to us rather than being shown or felt, as it was in superior films like Into The Wild or The New World. Both of those carried similar themes, but it needed to be extrapolated and discovered by the viewer along with the characters. I didn't get that impression here. We were clearly being told what to feel through the dialogue, which is fine to an extent since everything else is perfect, but less would have been more in delivering that message. This is partially representative of the current state of movies and entertainment in general today with studios primarily aiming to reach a demographic between the ages of 5 and 15, which isn't a problem unless you're not in it. The evidence of that is everywhere these days and could help explain the juvenile delivery of its message. It's admirable to make a movie the whole family can see but the more interesting action and sci-fi elements took a backseat when the movie probably would have been slightly better off grittier.
Ironically, as much as the scenes on Pandora break new cinematic ground, I preferred the human scenes at the station and the political tug-of-war taking place between the military and scientific factions, mainly because of Sigourney Weaver's performance. Cameron's always been a pro at writing strong female characters and Weaver is so determined in conveying Dr. Augustine's purpose that she brings a credibility to the story it probably wouldn't have otherwise. It contrasts well with Stephen Lang's no-nonsense, bad ass Colonel who's as entertaining as a villain can be in an action film while Giovanni Ribisi is the least irritating he's ever been as the greedy corporate head behind the program. The whole idea of avatars, how they work, what they mean and their consequences were more interesting to me than Jake's immersion into the Na'vi culture. As I watched I kept thinking that the big payoff should be the humans connecting with the Na'vi not as avatars, but themselves, and Cameron was smart enough to know that it was and build to that moment in the final hour so it really means something.
Worthington deserves more credit than he's gotten as the lead and in a way he acts as our avatar into this world as we see everything through his eyes, experiencing this world for the first time just as he is. He doesn't doing anything special, but doesn't need to and is smart enough to know that. He has a quiet charisma that works well for this and while another actor conceivably could have played the role and done equally well he's great nonetheless. It was also a smart detail on Cameron's part to make Jake a paraplegic so his journey ends up meaning more to him than it would your average Joe action hero. It's a small thing, but I'm not sure many other screenwriters would have thought to include it and the decision made the early scenes play that much better. You could argue the most overlooked performance comes from Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Or does it? With this motion capture technology it's difficult to gauge just how much she really did and what was contributed via CG in post-production. That's why Cameron's claims that this new technology represents a new approach to acting and the future of moviemaking seem ridiculous. I sincerely hope he's wrong on all counts and can completely understand why actors are pissed about it.
Uttering the phrase, "You don't go into a movie like Avatar for it's story" is a total cop-out and really shouldn't be said in regard to any film, much less this one. Luckily, this does have an involving story but we may not be able to say the same for future projects abusing this technology so studios can make a quick buck. Cameron took a big risk and it paid off. Do I think the film would have been more exciting if seen on the big screen in 3D? Probably. But a film's quality shouldn't be entirely dependent on the format or circumstances in which it's viewed. Either way, Avatar holds up and there's nothing the slightest bit average about it. While each aren't without their issues, I'd slightly favor Avatar over its Best Picture rival The Hurt Locker just because this gave us something we've never seen before. But that doesn't mean I want to see anything like it again.