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Avatar (2009)


Great things happen when James Cameron makes a movie these days. Sometimes it’s spectacular, frequently it’s philosophical, and occasionally there is a fresh, deep, multilayered plot with excellent writing and interweaving plotlines. Often new filmmaking techniques must be devised to convey his sweeping vision. Did Cameron succeed with Avatar? Having had good experience with his movies in the past and having heard all the hype surround his latest Biggest Movie Ever, naturally I wanted to know.

Avatar is an epic science fiction film directed by (who else) James Cameron. It stars Sam “Remake of the Titans” Worthington, Zoe “Vantage Point” Saldana, Stephen “Project X” Lang, Michelle “Resident Evil” Rodriguez, Joel David “Grandma’s Boy” Moore, Giovanni “Gone in 60 Seconds” Ribisi, and Sigourney “Get away from her, you bitch!” Weaver.

In the year 2154, the RDA corporation is mining a mineral called unobtanium on a lush, jungle-like moon called Endor Pandora, a planet where absolutely everything is deadly to humans, but not to the Na’vi, a race of Native American cat girls nine foot tall sapient humanoids, who live in harmony with nature and follow a mother goddess they call Eywa. To interface with the Na’vi and learn about Pandora, the researchers use genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called Avatars, controlled from afar via mental link by genetically compatible operators. Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine from Earth, is recruited to replace his dead twin brother, a scientist for whom the body was originally created, but who was murdered during a robbery. Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), the head of the Avatar program, doesn’t think Sully is sufficiently prepared for intergalatic diplomacy, but when he is separated from the group to whom he was assigned as a body guard, attacked by native predators, and rescued by a Na’vi named Neytiri, he is brought to a local village, as signs portend Great Things for him. The Na’vi teach him the native ways, and Colonel Badass Miles Quaritch, who to judge by his facial scars has already had a less than diplomatic encounter with the Na’vi, promises to help Sully walk again if he gathers intel on the Na’vi, but plans to get his Unobtanium by any means possible. But then the plot gets lost in the goddamn beautiful scenery.

This movie is really frapping gorgeous. The lush jungle scenes are filled with plantlife that you would expect to find on an alien planet, but with enough parallels with Earth flora that you almost recognize many of them. Some of the glowing blue ferns look like something from the bottom of the ocean, and the trees are huge, organic, old-growth behemoths that look like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. The wildlife is vicious but plausible, with claws and spikes and armor that have a purpose other than for sheer scary factor, and the Na’vi are believeable as a native race, with their own ways and customs, and a unique appearance that automatically precludes the “dude in a suit” limitations that less ambitious directors might try. 95% of Pandora is completely CGI, and Cameron worked with a small army of designers, artists, costumers, linguists, botanists, anthropologists, and CGI creators to bring this alien world to life. Which would be great if this were a pure mockumentary of Pandora, and we had time to explore without worrying about any plot-based reasons for being there. Unfortunately, the plot that we are given is fairly thin and derivative, and easily gets lost in the beauty of this created world.

When I saw Avatar in theaters, my main impression was, God, that was pretty. And… that was pretty much it. While the visuals were impressive, like I’d come to expect from Cameron, the actual story was kind of disappointing. It was like, okay, there’s this alien world with this really awesome stuff on it that humans want (and I have a hard time taking Unobtanium seriously as a scientific name since they used it with a straight face in The Core), but OMG LOOK AT THE PRETTY PLANET AND THE AWESOME HALF-NAKED CATGIRLS and wait, we need an actual story? Meh, just retell Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, nobody will notice.

So, if you’re looking for impressive visuals and an overall very shiny movie, see Avatar. On the other hand, if you want a unique, well-developed story that doesn’t ride exclusively on visuals, give this one a miss.

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