Dish Network has been providing a free preview of HBO’s various channels these past few days, and as a result, I was finally able to sit down and catch James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar. Yes, this is the first time I’ve seen it. You knew there had to be someone out there who didn’t manage to catch it in the theatres; well, I’m the guy. To hear some tell it, I was the only one, though this seems unlikely. In my defense, I was broke at the time.
Unless you’ve cut yourself completely off from the media for the past 2 years (in which case, Hi! Welcome back!), you’re at least somewhat familiar with Avatar. A huge blockbuster of a movie, it set a new box office record, at least as long as inflation isn’t accounted for (it really should be, though; that’s something that always bugs me a bit. Compare ticket sales, not dollars.) Though it had an extravagant budget, estimated at over $230 million, it made back over three times that in the U.S. alone, and effectively changed the landscape of the cinema, at least for the short term. It’s the reason why anything with even a slight action bent gets a 3D treatment right now; it’s why every movie theatre has little kiosks around them asking you to return your Real3D glasses, and why so many garage sales have free bins full of Real3D glasses they didn’t return. Everybody’s playing follow the leader right now, and Avatar is the current leader.
So it’s certainly successful, but is it any good?
Avatar stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully a marine discharged due to having lost the use of legs. When his brother dies, he’s brought on to a scientific mission to replace him. The mission is centered on the world of Pandora, where corporate interests want to mine for “unobtainium”, a rare mineral with a name that’s entirely too on-the-nose. Complicating matters for them is that Pandora is lush with jungles, with all sorts of hazardous fauna, and is also inhabited by a race called the Na’vi. The Na’vi are a race of blue, ten-foot-tall catlike humanoids, and they are reluctant to negotiate with humans, being fearful of outsiders in general, especially after a violent incident in the recent past. To learn about the Na’vi and try to negotiate with them, scientists have created the “Avatars”, lifeforms with a hybrid of human and Na’vi DNA, that can be inhabited by a human mind. That’s where Sully comes in; his brother was going to be one of the people controlling an Avatar, and the bodies, being custom-made, can only be used by the right person — or, in this case, his identical twin.
It doesn’t take long for this film to start introducing character relationships and the central conflicts. Jake gets some mild disdain, and later gentle teasing, from head scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver), who wants to simply study Pandora peacefully. Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi, just wants his unobtainium. Selfridge’s head of security, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) recruits Jake as his reconnaissance man, to get military intel on the Na’vi. Jake is separated from his group, and is rescued by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the princess of a local tribe of Na’vi, and the village elder, voiced by CCH Pounder, directs Neytiri to teach him the ways of their tribe. Jake eventually falls in love with Pandora, the tribe, and Neytiri, and eventually finds himself in opposition to the side he originally supported.
It’s not exactly an original plot; it liberally borrows from other “white man adopts new culture” stories ranging from John Carter of Mars to Dances With Wolves, and there really aren’t any surprises here. Jake adapts to his new form very quickly; going from a paraplegic body to one with working legs would realistically take some adjustment, especially considering the body was half again as tall and had a tail. But that’s all right, it gets things on the way. The rest, from getting separated to being adopted, to changing his position, to achieving a feat that few of the natives have, are all standard bullet points on the outline of this sort of story. But while it may not be unique, it is entertaining; although the movie weighs in at nearly three hours, it didn’t feel like it dragged at any point, and what little could be called filler is fairly short.
The main characters themselves are likeable, although only Sully and Grace seem to have any real depth to them. The various Na’vi, Neytiri included, are essentially just stock roles; the tribal princess, the chief, the shaman, the village brave. Stereotypical, but workable starting places if some additional characterization is added; I just didn’t feel like much was. It didn’t seriously affect my enjoyment of the film, but I did notice it. What did affect my enjoyment some was the villains of the piece; they came across as being far too cartoony for me. In some scenes I was half-expecting them to bust out into diabolical laughter.
Still, as a whole, the story was more than the sum of its parts, and kept me entertained for the full 2:45 run time. While I have my criticisms of the plot and characters, they are ultimately nitpicks next to the basic question, “Was I entertained?” Yes, yes I was.
Visually, this is a gorgeous film. Cameron had it shot specifically for 3D, with a proper stereoscopic camera set-up as opposed to the post-process conversion many later films have gone with. As I was watching on television, 3D glasses were both unnecessary and useless, but I could see how many of the shots would have been awe-inspiring shown in 3D on the large screen. Even viewing it the way I was, many of these scenes were still breathtaking.
The film also makes heavy use of computer-generated imagery. In fact, very little outside of the human actors is “real”. The Na’vi, the animals, the vehicles, and much of the scenery are all digital constructions, and the movie really demonstrates how far the medium has come. There’s still a bit of a latex feel to some of the creatures and plants, but it’s nowhere near as noticeable as it is in movies only a few years older. Motion-capture technology eliminated stiff and jerky movements from the Na’vi, and most of the animals also seem to move naturally. The only jerkiness I noticed was with the armored mechs some of the soldiers drove, and I’m not totally sure I would have noticed even that had I not had my attention drawn to it by the mechs’ strong resemblance to the very jerky ED-209 robot from Robocop 2. I will say that human expressions on a feline face, or combined human/feline expressions in some cases, look a bit creepy. But the only complaints I have are all quibbles on that order; artistically, this film is as solid as it gets.
Overall, Avatar is a beautiful, engaging movie. It’s not especially deep, and the characters are a bit two-dimensional. But it’s entertaining from start to finish, and that’s all you can really ask from a blockbuster action movie. Reportedly, James Cameron is working on sequels (plural, because nowadays if you do a sequel you must make it a trilogy); I’m not sure there’s a natural outgrowth for this story, but I guess we’ll see. At the very least, I’m sure it’ll look nice.