We waited for this one almost as long as we waited for Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” but James Cameron did come through with “Avatar.” The naysayers were out in full force proclaiming that this movie would be a disaster as its release was delayed a couple of times, but Cameron once again shows us that there is no filmmaker more equipped to change the way we look at movies than him . Here he has achieved the impossible and completely blurred the line between what is real and what is a special effect, and he makes it worth our while to see a movie in 3-D.
You have to give Cameron credit for being so patient. He waited years for technology to catch up to where he could best tell this story and even invented a new camera with his brother to make the most convincing 3-D movie ever shot. So many others would be in a hurry to get a movie up onscreen to where nothing but shortcuts are taken, but “Avatar” had a 2 year post production period to get every little detail covered. This movie needs to be seen on the big screen if possible as watching it on Blu-ray or DVD will never have the same effect.
Sam Worthington, who all but stole “Terminator Salvation” right out from under Christian Bale, stars as Jake Sully, a former marine who is paralyzed from the waist down and not looking for sympathy or pity. He ends up being recruited for a mission on Pandora, a moon on the far reaches of space, that was meant for his brother who passed away before he could take it on. Pandora is inhabited by very tall blue creatures called the Na’vi, and avatars of them have been created so that humans can walk among and study them closely. When Jake does his first drive in the avatar, it opens him up to possibilities that have since been denied to him.
Of course, these avatars are also being closely observed by the military as they plan to exploit them to infiltrate the Na’vi and force them off their sacred land. This way the greedy corporation (is there any other kind?) can get at the mineral called “unobtanium” (nice play on words) which is buried deep beneath the surface. This mineral represents an enormous cash cow for soulless investors back on planet Earth, and it also serves as a much needed source of energy Earth needs as well.
The story of “Avatar” has been told many times before; a disillusioned military officer comes face to face with the people he has been fighting, and soon he becomes enamored of their lifestyle and code of honor to where he is integrated into their society and turns against the one he was a part of. This has been the basis for movies like “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” and we know the setup and how it’s all going to go, but Cameron still makes it work by having us invest emotionally in the characters. By doing so, all the action and the visuals presented to us become all the more enthralling as a result.
Cameron has been one of the very best storytellers in movies for decades now, but this gets lost at times because the dialogue he writes can be quite cringe inducing. You want to go up to him at times and make him see that people don’t really talk to each other that way, but the strength of the story adds up to the amazing visuals that are shown onscreen.
A big issue with most effects driven movies is that you can tell when you are watching a CGI effect, and that just takes you completely out of the movie to where you can’t help but view it in a cynical light. But as “Avatar” went on, it becomes tougher to figure out what was CGI and what was real. Furthermore the motion capture they used is astonishing as the avatars are made to look like the actors playing them, and the movements are so amazingly lifelike that you stop questioning how the special effects were achieved as you watch.
So let’s talk about the actors now. As Jake Sully, Sam Worthington keeps his character from being a complete cliché and infuses him with a nobility that has served him well in life despite his injuries. While we expect him to speak a lot of tone deaf dialogue courtesy of the director, nothing that comes out of his mouth ever feels forced with emotion.
But the most welcome actor to appear in “Avatar” is Sigourney Weaver who is doing her first Cameron movie since “Aliens.” She plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar program who uses them to help gain the trust of the Na’vi and study their world for peaceful and scientific purposes. She is the classic Cameron female character; tough as nails, controlling and never a pushover.
Another classic Cameron female character is played by Michelle Rodriguez, still looking as hot as she does in those “Fast & Furious” movies. Her character of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon is somewhat similar to Jeanette Goldstein’s character of Vasquez from “Aliens”; a badass soldier who is as tough as the men, and perhaps even tougher. Trudy certainly a lot more morally conscious than the majority of the marines we see in the film, and Rodriguez makes her into a force to be reckoned with.
You also have Giovanni Ribisi playing Parker Selfridge (rhymes with selfish), the corporate manager in charge of the Pandora mining operation. Like Paul Reiser’s character from “Aliens,” he is only interested in making a gigantic profit that will set him up for life. Ribisi plays Parker as a pragmatic ass with absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever, and he is ever so gleeful about what is in store for him once this mineral is sufficiently mined. The way he sees it, what’s the big deal? Just move those people out of the way and have them go somewhere else. Jean-Luc Picard was right, not everyone has learned from history.
Another memorable performance in “Avatar” comes from Stephen Lang who plays the brutal Colonel Miles Quaritch as he completely sells himself as a soldier you do not want to mess with. Like Tom Berenger in “Platoon,” Quaritch’s face is deeply scarred and he does nothing to hide that. He simply sees those scars as an illustration of how nasty the Pandora is, but his flaw is that he cannot see the Na’vi beyond that anger which is forever powered by his deep-seated fear.
Then there is Zoë Saldaña who plays Neytiri, princess of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. Neytiri is the first real Na’vi to come in contact with Jake Sully and who (in typical Cameron fashion) eventually falls in love with him. In essence, a lot of “Avatar” rests on her performance and she succeeds in making you believe in this race of beings to where they are more than just visual effects. This ends up making it easier for other actors like Wes Studi and CCH Pounder to portray the Na’vi as she has perfectly set up the groundwork for them to follow.
“Avatar” deals with many of the same themes Cameron has dealt with in his films: military intervention into a foreign land, machines versus nature, love found between beings from different worlds, how scientists and those with curious minds seek to understand the aliens, and how corporations will do anything to make a profit. The parallels between what the military forces are doing in Pandora and the wars America has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan also makes the movie timely.
What’s especially fascinating about “Avatar” is how Cameron utilizes a lot of the technology that was on display in his previous films. Those armed walkers Colonel Quaritch uses look to be an upgrade of the driver Sigourney Weaver drove in the climax of “Aliens.” The mind devices used to control the avatars looks a lot like the head pieces from “Strange Days.”. The scenes of humans interacting with otherworldly creatures also brings to mind similar scenes from “The Abyss,” and you also have characters who go from being bad to becoming good guys like in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
With all this in mind, you might think Cameron is running out of new ideas, but it’s great to see how he combines them all up to good use in “Avatar.” It illustrates how technology is constantly evolving, and that the things we remember are not governed, and never will be, by intelligent design.
Whatever weaknesses this movie has are undone by its well-earned achievements. Once again, see this movie in a theater! I don’t care if you hate going to the movies and are sick of all those young kids being annoying asses throughout (I used to be one of them, so I should talk). “Avatar” is a great and reinvigorating reminder of how sitting in a darkened movie theater can be ever so thrilling.