Too many ingredients and aspects of Avatar are perhaps too reminiscent of other movies or simply too silly. But here it is in all its glory, trying to meet expectations that have built ever since James Cameron made Titanic (1997). The way technology has been used in the making of the movie has indeed been revolutionary. What audiences will see is a spectacular and thrilling 3D behemoth that may actually be best enjoyed in – 2D.
Exploring new worlds in space
The year is 2154 and mankind has explored new worlds in outer space. One of them is Pandora, a satellite to a gigantic planet 4.3 light years from Earth. Pandora is covered by jungle and inhabited by wondrous animals and a humanoid race called the Na’vi. They have blue skin, are taller than humans, have a unique language, hunt with bow and arrow and worship a deity called Eywa; they live in the jungle pretty much the way a human tribe would on Earth. The Na’vi as well as their planet are carefully being researched by humans who have set up headquarters on a space station. Scientists and soldiers go on missions to Pandora not as themselves but as genetically-bred avatars; their minds are connected to these bodies that look exactly like the Na’vi. Using the avatars, they can breathe on the planet and blend in easily with the locals.
The wheelchair-bound Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives at the space station hoping to get the use of his legs back. Botanist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is skeptical about using Jake as an avatar since he doesn’t know anything about the planet or the indigenous people… but he turns out to be a most able Na’vi avatar. Soon he’s given the task of infiltrating the population and convince them to evacuate from an area that is valuable to the greedy military complex that runs the space station.
Tearing down the wall between games and reality
Fans of Cameron’s Aliens (1986) will get a kick out of several details. The director is reunited with its star, Weaver, and there’s several characters here that look familiar, especially Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who shares traits with Paul Reiser’s weaselly bureaucrat in Aliens. The aforementioned military complex is also just as evil as “the Company” and that exosuit cargo-loader that Ripley uses is still around, albeit much more sophisticated now.
The battle scenes are exactly what we expect from Cameron – violent, grand, and with at least one amusingly ironic dialogue exchange.
The film also shares ideas with another Cameron predecessor, The Abyss (1989). The aliens in that movie were portrayed as beautiful, neon-glowing, benign and intelligent creatures that most humans are too stupid or aggressive to understand. Cameron and his team have done everything in their technological (and imaginative) power to turn Pandora and the connection between the magic of its jungles and the Na’vi into something extraordinary. As I wrote earlier, so many of Cameron’s conceptual ideas for this world and this people are border-line ridiculous, but aided by the technology and his stubborn passion he makes it look believable, so much so that we actually do care about what happens to them when the military starts blasting away. Speaking of that, the battle scenes are exactly what we expect from Cameron – violent, grand, and with at least one amusingly ironic dialogue exchange.
Gamers will also fall in love with the way Cameron brilliantly tears down the wall between games and reality; when they use those avatars, humans are basically playing games… but they are still set in reality with real consequences.
The 3D effects are terrific, but not all that essential to the film. Watching it through 3D glasses, feeling the intense experience torture my eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder if the 2D version might be a better choice.
Avatar 2009-U.S. 161 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by James Cameron, Jon Landau. Written and directed by James Cameron. Music: James Horner. Song: “I See You” (James Horner, Simon Franglen, Kuk Harrell). Cinematography: Mauro Fiore. Production Design: Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg. Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi.
Trivia: Matt Damon was considered for the lead role; Michael Biehn for Lang’s part. Followed by Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects. BAFTA: Best Production Design, Special Visual Effects. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director.
Last word: “It came from all the science-fiction books I read when I was a kid and it just gestated over time. I did a lot of fantasy art and I had drawers full of drawings of creatures, characters, robots, spaceships and all that sort of thing. So for me I was just going back to my roots.” (Cameron, The Telegraph)