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Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron
Principal Cast
Sam Worthington -- Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana -- Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver -- Dr. Grace Augustine
Stephen Lang -- Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez -- Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi -- Parker Selfridge
Joel David Moore -- Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder -- Moat
A review by David Newbert

  "You should see your faces!"
—Trudy Chacon

I've heard it said that if you scratch a cynic hard enough, you'll find a romantic underneath. It certainly seems true of James Cameron, a cinematic visionary who creates blood-and-thunder epics that never lose sight of their human aspect. His budget-busting force of will levels just about everything in its path, with the end result being a spectacle built around a human-scale story that looks to inspire real emotion. Say what you will about the King of the World, he tends to give good value for your money. And now here is Avatar: a $300 million dollar blockbuster that employs the latest cinematic technology to lift you into Cameron's dream of another world, and underscore the importance of appreciating a simple life in Nature, before there was anything like an industrial revolution. Pause for irony…

Avatar is the best adaptation yet of the kind of SF planetary romance that we associate with Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars series. This being a Cameron film, it also comes equipped with most of the director's usual themes and trademarks: strong female characters, a romantic subplot that plays out against an apocalyptic background, the relationship of humanity to its technology, and an almost masturbatory fascination with military hardware. To that, you can add a sincere but not-too-heavy-handed environmentalist message, and an attitude about humanity that harkens back to Kubrick's 2001: another film that suggests that we're not yet ready to travel to the stars, or even survive into the future, without fundamentally evolving into something extra-human. And of course, don't forget, there's one hell of a lot of top-shelf action scenes. (Hint: don't even think of getting up during the final thirty minutes.)

Cameron's story is simple and well-worn -- maybe too worn, for some -- but sturdy. Mankind, in 2154, having ruined the Earth, is in search of a necessary but rare mineral to keep modern society going (in the film, it's called unobtainium -- that's scientist shorthand from the 50s for an element that would solve all of our problems, if only it existed), and this mineral has been located in another system on a remote moon named Pandora. There are problems to getting it: most of Pandora's flora and fauna -- even its air -- are deadly to humans, and the biggest deposit of unobtainium yet found sits right below the ancestral home of Pandora's indigenous population, the Na'vi. Standing twelve feet tall, with slim, feline features, and lovely blue skin, the Na'vi are a fierce warrior culture that has endured by living in harmony with their planet's ecosystem. They certainly have no intention of leaving their home to satisfy Earthly mining concerns -- and they don't particularly care for what they call the Sky People.

A venal, exploitative corporation (à la Alien) and a no-nonsense military contractor (à la Aliens) have set up a base on Pandora to force the situation. They work alongside human biologists who have been studying and interacting with the Na'vi using avatars, lab-grown versions of the Na'vi bodies into which consciousness can be downloaded while the human bodies remain in suspended animation. (This is very similar to the Poul Anderson story "Call Me Joe," from 1957.) The avatars are genetically keyed to the nervous systems of specific individuals, and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disillusioned and paraplegic ex-Marine, is chosen for the program as a last minute replacement for his deceased twin brother. He isn't a scientist, which initially draws the ire of the project's leader, Grace Augustine (a welcome Sigourney Weaver), a strong-willed biologist who loves the Na'vi above all else. But Jake has a fearless heart and an intuitive mind, which also draws the attention of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, in an outstanding, bristly performance), who wants to finish the mission of removing the Na'vi and get home as soon as possible. He sees Jake's excursions into the Pandoran wilderness as opportunities to collect some field intelligence that could help eradicate the Na'vi ahead of schedule. Things get complicated when Jake's life is saved by the Na'vi warrior princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Ah, Neytiri. If there is anything to represent the technical breakthrough of Avatar, it's her. The motion-capture technology that created previous digital characters -- from the awful Jar Jar Binks, to Smith and Neo in the Matrix sequels, to Gollum, King Kong, and still others -- has taken a step forward here, and it's hard not to think of a butterfly (a Pandoran butterfly, presumably) emerging from its shell. I understand that Neytiri only exists as ones and zeroes in Cameron's computer files, but the impression in Avatar of her being flesh and blood is magical. Small facial details, such as the way her tongue, lips and teeth interact, or the expressions of her eyes, even the subtle glow of her skin, make Neytiri a viable onscreen presence, and it allows Saldana to give an honest performance to fill the character with life, and not just indulge in a serviceable pantomime (à la The Polar Express, or Beowulf). Her Neytiri projects a regal bearing, but never seems untouchable or too distant -- she's compassionate and wise and brave, but not to be messed with, a perfect guide for our introduction to the world of Pandora, and in what might be a first for a CGI character, also remarkably sexy. (Of course, depending on how you're wired for this last feature, your mileage may vary.)

So Jake is saved and brought into the Na'vi tribe, and Neytiri is tasked with teaching him the native ways. Lucky for him, Jake's a natural. It all leads to the two of them falling in love and taking a stand against the encroaching humans, and unlike most films that have awesome battle sequences in their final thirds, in Avatar you actually care about the outcome. It isn't just the winning or losing that compels your emotion, but the issues that people are fighting for, the people that are doing the fighting, and their relationships to one another. It's the perfect example of how to structure these kinds of screenplays.

And needless to say, since we know who the director is, that final battle is amazing. Cameron shows he has the same mastery of an action scene's spatial coherence that Lucas does; the clash is on a huge scale, but you're never confused as to what's happening or why. Don't trust the numbnuts who compared it to Ewoks vs. the Empire in Return of the Jedi. It's far better, more complicated and believable, and plays out on a level reserved for the climactic struggle of The Return of the King, with heroism and daring and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. And if you loved the mano-a-mano duel between Ripley and the Alien Queen, something so iconic it's now become the material for tv commercials, then Cameron has something in store just for you at the end of Avatar.

Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation) is perfectly good as Jake, though I found him more interesting as a Na'vi simulacrum than a real human being. Jake is a wounded creature, and we see him early in his low-tech wheelchair, trying not to get run over by Marine transports and gigantic powersuits straight out of Starship Troopers. When he gets his legs back courtesy of the avatar technology, he literally runs out of the laboratory and into a new world of freedom. He has been told previously that Pandora is a hell, but his character arc exists to show that it's really an Eden -- for the people who can appreciate it without destroying it. Worthington seems to wake up, literally and symbolically, as a Na'vi.

You've no doubt heard that the film was shot in 3-D. My relationship to this part of the new technology is ambivalent. I found the glasses (kind of like plastic sunglasses) to be uncomfortable, and the images tended to fade into insubstantial shadows the closer they got to the edge of the screen; you'll notice it when the camera dives through the Pandoran underbrush, or careens around a floating mountain. But when the effect worked, the detail and colors were good, and the depth of vision seemed to stretch on for miles. It's also mostly free of those moments in other 3-D films when the screen tries to "throw" something at you to make you appreciate the effect; instead, it's an immersive and persuasive use of the technology that draws you into the world it presents. If you choose to see it in 3-D (or RealD, as the company calls it), I can't imagine you'll be too disappointed. But I'm not ready to call it the future of cinema.

By the way, "seeing" is what Avatar is all about. A world with this much detail and complexity is often attempted on film, but rarely achieved. At night, the beautiful Pandoran rain forest has the bioluminescent glow of a deep ocean environment, and is populated with so many plants and critters that you won't notice them all in one sitting. Cameron has created his world around the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the whole planet is a living entity, except in Pandora's case the creatures can actually plug into the planet via neural links in their hair or extremities and share information. It's one of those "big ideas" that space opera likes to play with, but Cameron keeps it on an appreciable scale in Avatar, which is to say that he takes it only so far. He's more interested in the metaphors he can find, like the native life being "avatars" for the planet itself, or the way humans use their technology to disentangle themselves from the morally dirty work of colonization. This idea of "seeing" something to its essence is very important to the Na'vi and their creator, but don't think that Cameron is trying to beat you over the head with a moral; he's here to primarily move you and entertain you.

Of course, there are flaws. I could point out that, at two hours and forty minutes, it's a little long for the story it tells, or that Neytiri has a change of heart in one scene that I found a little hard to buy. I could tell you that Michelle Rodriquez is a crowd favorite as Chacon (she's the Vasquez of Avatar), but is sadly underutilized. Flaws like these are real but minor, and the movie isn't ruined by them, so let's not be jerks about it, shall we? The film has too many virtues to ignore. It's the new state of the art in filmed science fiction, and even more impressive -- it's the return of awe.

Copyright © 2010 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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