Pros: Amazing effects will raise the bar for all future movies. Fantastic Story. Great actors. Masterpiece!
Cons: Did you hear me? I said Masterpiece! We are talking Oscars here!
Avatar (2009) Directed by James Cameron
"I see you...."
Unobtainium sells for $20 million a kilo. And Pandora has an ample supply. Pandora, a moon of a gas giant is over five years from earth, and in 2154 Unobtainium makes it worthwhile to invest billions of dollars to get there and get it.
Pandora is inhabited. Pandora is a worldwide jungle that makes the Amazon look like an arboretum for little old ladies. Everything on it is alive, and probably wants to eat you. The natives are called the Na'vi. They are about ten feet tall, slender, blue, and have tails.
Contact with the Na'vi is accomplished by the use of Avatars. An Avatar is a grown being, mostly Na'vi genetics with a little very specific human DNA. The consciousness of an operator is then downloaded into the Avatar, and the person walks and moves through the world in the body of a Na'vi.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a marine with a unique opportunity. Jake had a twin brother who was originally intended for the mission as an anthropologist/botanist, but when he was killed, Jake was offered the chance to operate the Avatar in his place, the only being suited to the DNA.
And since Jake is a paraplegic, and this offers him the chance to earn the kind of money it will take to repair his spine, he takes it.
This project has three heads; Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the overall director, and the voice of the corporation. Under him are Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in charge of security/military matters and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) the scientist who is also in charge of the Avatar project, and opening diplomatic relations with the Na'vi. Grace is less than thrilled to have Jake, with no language skills, no scientific training, and no insights to offer. Quaritch, on the other hand is thrilled, and tells Jake to keep his eyes open with a military action in mind.
Jake heads out, and first day in the jungle, is separated from the party. Not his fault, really, the six legged panther thing the size of a Clydesdale was trying to eat him. But he is found by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and due to a sign from the goddess, she saves him from certain death.
You know how no good deed goes unpunished? Neytiri is given the job of teaching Jake how to live as a Na'vi. Every night, he falls asleep, and wakes up in his own crippled form. Every morning he goes back and starts the day ten feet tall and blue. His mission is to find a way to get the Na'vi to move off their ancestral lands, which are on top of a very rich deposit of unobtainium. The question is what can they offer these people? And as the mission continues, Jake knows the answer...nothing. Can Jake reconcile his mission with the consequences of his actions?
James Cameron proved he was king of the world with Titanic. Here, he expands his empire. Pandora is a richly realized, breathtakingly beautiful, admittedly impossible world of wonders, not the least of which are the Na'vi, who live in harmony with their world, not only respectful of it, but able to neurologically link into its creatures. All critters on Pandora seem to have this ability to plug into each other. The Na'vi respect their planet, and all its creatures, because in a fundamental way, they are interconnected. And learning that is central to Jake's mission.
The story is somewhat predictable, not because it is poorly written, but because it is the classic hero's journey. We recognize the mythic weight of Jake's role, linking the two worlds, and therefore little that happens surprises us. We have seen it before; Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai. But it does satisfy us. Deeply.
Part of that of course is reflected in the strength of the actors. Sam Worthington is believable as a Jarhead out to hit the bullseye and win himself a new pair of legs. But as he learns about the people, he blooms, like one of the exotic flowers of Pandora, fitting ever better in his Na'vi blues, and feeling more and more that his real life is the dream...or the nightmare.
Sigourney Weaver plays the strong headed slightly b*tchy woman with a heart of gold. Heck, she wrote that book. You know she can play the part, even at ten foot tall and blue.
And Stephen Lang as hard as nails Colonel Miles Quaritch; a scarred veteran with the manner of a thinking man's drill sergeant, you are kept guessing about what kind of man he is; is he more than a killing machine? Can he grasp the big picture? Or will he fall back on what is comfortable and blow stuff up? The same is true of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi); will he see the light? Or is he just a corporate slime like Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens?
And Zoe Saldana as the exotic Neytiri, and Laz Alonzo as the fierce Tsu'tey. Why am I reminded so much of Stands with a Fist and Wind in His Hair? Both make the Na'vi accessable, humane, if not human, and strangely sexy. Disturbingly sexy even.
Cameron seems to have taken more than one page from George Lucas, and seen how much neat stuff he can stuff in one movie. But while Lucas' sometimes feels forced (C3PO's endless one-liners about his missing head) Cameron manages to pull it off seamlessly. Everything about this movie can be described that way; seamless. Just as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings set new standards from the movie industry, Avatar has just raised the bar.
Seamless is a good way to describe the animation as well. 40% of the movie is live action. The other 60% is photorealistic CGI that is hands down the best, least obtrusive, most believable I have ever seen. And combine that with 3D! Cameron did everything right, from balancing the lighting so the glasses don't darken everything, to avoiding gratuitous 3D just because they had it. No, it is used flawlessly, to remove one more thing from believing you are there.
As one enthusiastic patron said while leaving the theater, "I can't wait to get home and draw myself blue, with a tail, riding a dragon, with a machine gun!" I had to laugh. But that is the level of involvement you have with this movie. It comes at you with honest intentions; it will preach to you about ecological responsibility, about the cost in suffering of rampant imperialism and the horror of displaced peoples. But it also promises you will enjoy the hell out of it, and remember it for years to come.
And will I be drawing myself later, blue, with a tail, riding a dragon with a machine gun? Damn Skippy, I will.