Writer-director James Cameron has been planning the science fiction fantasy Avatar pretty much since yelling “I’m the king of the world!” during his acceptance speech at the 1998 Academy Awards where he nabbed the Best Director Oscar for the behemoth hit Titanic. On hiatus from Hollywood since, and hesitant to shoot Avatar any earlier because he didn’t feel the technology required to produce it was available, he waited, and it’s a good thing he did. He’s returned with a bang and has delivered a visually stunning masterpiece that is sure to alter the course of cinema for years to come.
In a distant future Earthlings are sent to the planet Pandora to mine for the highly expensive mineral unobtainium which is used as a form of energy on Earth. Pandora is full of lush plants and trees, wild, colourful (and dangerous) creatures, and the native inhabitants to the land — the Na’vi. The Na’vi are enormous blue beings with their own language and religious beliefs. They adore and protect the nature around them and will fight for it to the death. When the Earthlings begin to destroy Pandora during mining expeditions, the Na’vi fight back — killing off or injuring many of the human workers.
A group of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have been hired by the mining company SecFor to create “Avatars” of the Na’vi so the humans can infiltrate them. These surrogate bodies are created by mixing Na’vi and human DNA, and look just like a real Na’vi being. Each one is controlled by and connected to a particular human — and the Avatars even resemble their human counterparts to a certain degree. Dr. Augustine and her apprentice Norm (Joel Moore) have been using them for a long time to learn about the Na’vi culture and language as well as teach them English. Ex-Marine and paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) had a twin brother who was part of the “Avatar” program but died in a tragic accident. Since his DNA matches Jake’s; Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the head administrator of SecFor, has brought him in to join Dr. Augustine’s team (against her wishes) and control the third “Avatar” body.
Jake is approached by head of SecFor security Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who wants him to gather info on the Na’vi’s weaknesses and report back to him. Col. Quaritch also gives him a mission — get the Na’vi to move from their “Home Tree” (their village, which happens to sit on top of a huge amount of unobtainium) peacefully or they will have to resort to violence and blast them out, annihilating the species and everything else living on Pandora. He has three months to complete the task.
The first run Jake has in the “Avatar” body he’s separated from Dr. Augustine and Norm’s “Avatars” and ends up lost in the Pandora woods. Alone in the dark and with a few massive Pandoran creatures surrounding him he’s rescued by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) — a young Na’vi woman who sees something magical in him. She takes him back to the “Home Tree” where her tribe decides if they should allow Jake, a hollow Na’vi replica, to live and learn with them. Upon learning Jake is a warrior they accept him and his training begins. He learns about their culture and history, how to speak like them, fight like them, and most importantly becomes one of their own. Although he’s feeding Col. Quaritch his notes, he’s also starting to have feelings for Neytiri, and the tribe in general, and is having a hard time living with the knowledge that they could all be wiped out. After the three months are up and the Na’vi won’t move the Earthlings stick with their plan and start bombing the “Home Tree”. Jake needs to decide whether to stay in his “Avatar” form to fight with them or abandon them and watch them die.
Switch unobtainium with oil and you can see similarities with what the U.S. is doing in other parts of the world (some have taken this theory one step further and are calling Cameron anti-American over the film). I prefer to not bring politics into the theatre (unless it’s a political documentary) and looked at it as a refreshing original story that is solely based on the imagination of one man and not a video game, book, or previous film. This is fantasy and I prefer to keep it that way.
Let’s forget the story for a moment and talk about the effects. Using a mix of motion-capture and CG the effects seamlessly blend together with the live-action to create an eye-popping experience. Did I mention it’s also in 3-D? Admittedly I’m not that keen on the gimmick but it’s not overdone here and instead focuses on subtle things like floating dust or bugs flying around. Where the effects really stand out are with the beautiful backdrops of Pandora though, which took my breath away and sent a chill through me the first time it appears on screen. The one complaint I do have is with the motion-capture of Weaver’s “Avatar”. While the rest of the characters looked perfect hers looked off and cartoonish. I wonder if this is an issue with her or the animators?
Weaver does come across as a toned down, tree-hugging version of Ripley (her character from the Alien series) in the live-action parts and is great to watch. Worthington is once again the muscle but unlike Terminator Salvation‘s director McG, Cameron knows how to direct action as well as quiet moments and gets a strong performance out of Worthington. His “Avatar” scenes are also great and show a side of him I haven’t seen before. The rest of the cast, especially Saldana and Lang are perfectly cast and bring the right amount of emotion to their characters in order to make you feel connected to them.
As with Cameron’s previous films, an inordinate amount of detail has gone into Avatar. If you question a character’s reason for something there’s an answer (whether it’s at the forefront or not doesn’t matter – Cameron has created an entire origin for everyone and everything). If you were to freeze a scene you’d see things in the background as far as your eye will go. These details are what make Cameron a master behind the lens, and for a film that’s close to three hours long no time is wasted and it flies by.
Solid story, performances, and effects put Avatar in my top 10 films of the year. Let’s just hope Cameron doesn’t wait another 12 years to follow it up.
**** out of 5 stars
Top image: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in a scene from Avatar. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.