Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Avatar - Written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, and Zoe Saldana - Rated PG 13

For the flat out awesome experience, this film gets a Vader.

Wow...just wow. Avatar, the long awaited, majorly hyped new film from writer-director James Cameron is simply amazing. When watched in IMAX 3D it turns plain movie watching into a unique and breathtaking experience. There were times when I found myself with a grin on my face or with my mouth hanging open during this film. It completely encompasses you into the story in such a literal way that it will leave you wanting to go back in the theater and experience it all over again. Now, I've got my excited gushing out of the way, so let's get into the specifics.

Avatar takes place on the lush planet Pandora in 2154. Earth has run out of natural fuel resources, so a corporation sets up a military/scientific base on Pandora to try and come up with a way to get the precious Unobtanium under the planet's surface. To get the valuable substance, however, they have to deal with the Na'vi, the large, blue-skinned natives who are none too happy to see the "aliens" on their planet. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, who is given the opportunity to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother in the avatar program the scientists have come up with. The scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), want a diplomatic solution for the Unobtanium retrieval. To do this, they have spliced Na'vi and human DNA to create Na'vi vessels to be remotely controlled by the scientists. This way, they may be accepted into the Na'vi culture and could possibly convince them to simply move away from the main source of Unobtanium.

As you can imagine, things haven't been going so well for the corporation and they've decided to solve their problem with military action. Jake is asked by Col. Miles Quaritch (played to hardcore Marine perfection by Stephen Lang) to play along with the scientists' diplomatic mission, all the while reporting back to him for military reconnaissance. That's as far into the plot I want to go, but if you've seen the previews, you know that things eventually get violent. But you can experience that for yourself.

What helps you experience Avatar is the character of Jake Sully. He's a newcomer to Pandora and he's never remotely controlled an avatar. So he's our newbie guide and it's a perfect way to set the film up. We get to experience the beautiful world of Pandora with the same amazed grin as Jake when he first enters the jungle. The strange plant life and assorted beasts that populate the planet confuse and amuse Jake and we, the audience, are likewise amused.

Just showing off a pretty new planet to the audience isn't enough to make a great film, though. (I would argue, however, that the special effects alone make this film worth watching.) Cameron throws Jake into the Na'vi culture completely and we're treated to a rich and compelling society. The best comparison I can think of is Dances with Wolves, especially since the Na'vi, with their connection to the living planet, so closely resemble Native Americans (which is most likely why Wes Studi plays the chief/leader of the people).

A soldier entering a foreign society only to become emotionally invested in it is not all that original, but when you stop and consider what you are seeing on screen, it seems completely new and fresh. That's because you are watching ten foot tall blue creatures the whole time, not a single one of them practically made. This is all done through motion capture technology and it is stunning. I didn't consider the Na'vi to be silly CG creatures created only to show off new movie technology. I saw them as complete characters in the film and it didn't take very long for me to side with them in the struggle. Sure, you're supposed to side with them, but I usually have an aversion to films that treat the majority of the human race as greedy, hateful creatures. When it comes to fictional alien races or the human race's needs, I'm usually all for taking out the aliens for the greater good (or comfort) of humanity. But this time the aliens seem to be much more in touch with humanity, if that makes sense. Does all of this sound a bit heavy handed and even downright cheesy? I can see that argument, but I would only agree with that if the movie was terrible. As far as I'm concerned, Avatar bought itself a free pass for a sappy political message or two once I was treated to a few flybys and jungle treks in glorious 3D.

If you think nature looks amazing in 3D, just wait until stuff starts getting blown up. Cameron has long been known as a master of the action film (after Aliens, Terminator & T2, and True Lies) and he does not disappoint here. Aerial battles, ground battles, and good old fashioned one on one showdowns are all impressive and never overbearing.

Usually, I might find myself waiting for each action scene, but in this film I was always interested and fully invested, even when there weren't arrows or bombs flying through the air. Part of that is character development and story, but part of that is acting as well. I've already mentioned Lang's hardnosed turn, but that's simple stuff; his character is a human. It's the motion capture performances that sell the film. I'm not saying Worthington deserves an Oscar or anything, but he is perfect when it comes to making an awestruck face. And while the face itself may be computer generated, his performance is not. His voiceover segments of the film (done through periodic video logs) help keep the film together as well. There's a sincerity in his voice that I found completely convincing.

This all sounds great, I know. It sounds nearly perfect, but Avatar is not without its faults. First off, the Na'vi look amazing and nearly look photo-realistic, but when a Na'vi is interacting directly next to a human, it looks kind of goofy. The contrast between the species may be the cause of it, but regardless I found myself chuckling a few times when I wasn't supposed to. These moments are few and far between, though. Secondly: Michelle Rodriguez. Ugh, I have had it with her tough girl characters (Resident Evil, The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T.) that always have plenty of witty remarks to solidify their toughness. She has to be the least versatile actress in the business. Thankfully, she only has a couple of moments in the film, but I cringe every time I see her on screen. But that's not a knock against the film itself; it's more of a personal preference type of thing. I just wish Cameron could've held off from inserting yet another tough as nails female character into his film. Zoe Saldana's Na'vi character Neytiri filled the female warrior slot fine on her own. These are very minor issues, though, and they don't keep Avatar from being a great film.

There are many more ideas and aspects of the film that could be discussed but I think I've made my point. Avatar is an experience like nothing in recent film memory and everyone should see it. Whether or not James Cameron has made his masterpiece is something only time will tell, but one thing's for sure: he's created one hell of a ride. I, for one, can't wait to go again.

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