Avatar – Film Review

Avatar is in a word, ASTONISHING. Many aspects of the storytelling are familiar but the way in which James Cameron unfolds the story is, in every respect, entirely new. He has has kept his formidable storytelling skills but this time wrapped them in an imaginative presentation layer unlike anything you have ever seen. That theme plays out over and over as you sit through 2 hours and 30 minutes, which seems to go by as it were 90. That thought is “I’ve seen this before, but never in this manner.”

The year is 2054. The planet is Pandora. Man is in his usual greedy gold rush mode to take someone else’s natural resources for his own personal consumption, regardless of the cost. We see most of the usual suspects; science, business and the military. Surprisingly there are no political figures at the table. Wonder how they managed that in only 44 years?

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sgourney Weaver) is the scientist. She’s tough as nails and a stickler for details, but has a secret wish to believe in magic. The only reason she’s associated with this mission is to fund her research. The corporate top voice is Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who’s only concern, at the outset anyway, is keeping the shareholder quarterly reports in the black. The military man is a very scary Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). He’s all duty. Tightly wrapped, flawlessly trained and in complete charge. You can bet even his fingernails have muscles. Of all the characters in the story, his motivation and purpose is the most pure and unwavering.

Pandora is at once a dangerous and enchanting land. But it feels a lot more like a rain forest on earth than a faraway alien planet; nasty animals and exotic plants notwithstanding. It’s inhabits are the Na′vi who are tall, willowy  and blue with flat noses and sparkles on their faces. They have very long tails to help maintain balance as they navigate the forest limbs and an extensive pony tail fitted with a live plug on the end enabling it to access Pandora’s vast nerve network through animals and plants. The Na′vi have learned to enjoy and thrive in their world. The invading earthlings, who have used up their natural resources back on earth need to mine a precious substance that is abundant under a vast tree where the natives make their home. It seems like a simple enough proposition. The Na′vi move to a different tree and the humans get the goods. Yeah, well…

When it becomes obvious that talks are going south, the humans give diplomacy a twist and one last try. They enlist Dr. Augustine to create replicants of the Na′vi by combing DNA from both species into Avatars. Humans are then able to take over the Avatar bodies from a dream state induced by what looks to be a cross between a tanning bed and an MRI. When the human Avatar controllers are asleep they’re counterparts are awake and can be controlled inside the Na′vi tribe. The plan is to gain their trust and persuade them to move. Otherwise Colonel Quartich will deploy a more direct method.

That’s where hardcore marine Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) comes in. Sam is twin brother to the man who was being trained to take over an Avatar, but was killed in a skirmish before he could reach Pandora. Sam is confined to a wheelchair and has no formal training, but he gets a shot because of the DNA sharing.

Everyone wants Jake to find out information to further their personal cause. He commits to the Colonel, mostly because of the corps and duty, but as time goes on the line between human world and Na′vi world become blurred. While in his Avatar body, Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) an exotic beauty and member of one of the upper crust families. She is instructed by her father to train Jake in the ways of the Na′vi, and does so with an iron fist. Jake becomes more and more separated from his military life and is seduced by the simpler, more harmonious way of living. Cameron uses voice over sparingly, but very effectively to give us clues along the way. “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.” As the film advances Cameron makes Jake look more like his Avatar when present in the human world. There is a metamorphosis under way on many levels.

Much of the talk of the film revolves around the technical aspects of Avatar and Cameron’s wizardry with new cameras and breakthrough 3D effects. All of that discussion is justified. Let it be proclaimed that 3D has officially moved beyond “effects” and has taken its place as part of the grammar of the film. Has it “changed everything?” No, but it certainly will challenge everyone from here on out. Personally I hope this will be the catalyst that moves Hollywood off the stagnant explosions and recycled garbage into a new phase of sophistication and economics. The current formula is obsolete and has kept many cinema lovers away from the theaters. Raising the bar on content and production value might very well expand the runway for an entirely new creative revolution, as well as business model, that can engage a broader audience. Cameron just may be an Avatar inside Hollywood.

The actions scenes using CGI and 3D are spectacular, but I found the more static scenes of actors sitting around a table more visually compelling than some of the action segments. We expect the CGI to be otherworldly, but to have everyday interactions so rich in depth and texture is a wonderful surprise and I believe it’s the space where real creativity can best occur with 3D going forward. It’s a bit like looking at a topographic map on celluloid.

Back on Pandora it becomes clear that a deal cannot be struck and Colonel Quaritch baits Selfridge into taking action. Parker is having second thoughts. He’s the only character in the entire film not in a uniform. When we first see him he has on a tie, a nod to corporate regalia, but he quickly strips that off as he wrestles with the final decision. In the end we learn he is a mere puppet.

Everything builds up to the final battle. Each side summons forth their own alchemy for victory. The fighting takes place in the air and on the ground as the “sky people” guide their helicopters, gunships and robots against the natives who are aboard the winged Banshees of Pandora. Jake has provided good intelligence to Quaritch but also brings what he knows about humans to bear in a fresh strategy for the Na′vi, complete with weapons and communications devices.

James Horner’s soundtrack is big, wonderfully inspiring and refreshingly varied. It resembles his score for Titanic at times, but when we are deep in the jungle of Pandora he borrows heavily from Native Americans, giving these scenes more of a tribal feel than science fiction. All the characters are sharply drawn and the performances are sound on both the human and Na′vi sides. Look for pic to garner much critical acclaim, lots of Oscar nominations and a big box office take. Highly recommended.

Visit the official Avatar web site here.

Photos: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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