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Avatar is the type of film that only the self-proclaimed ”King of the World” could make. James Cameron has tackled futuristic killing machines, stomach-splitting aliens and sinking ships, and is now faced with big expectations. It’s been twelve years since Titanic left port, and buzz around his latest venture (a word which doesn’t quite capture the scope of this project) is otherworldly. And with a budget in the hundreds of millions range, one has to wonder if Avatar could ever be a big enough success.
And yet, success is the perfect word for Avatar. It’s not perfect, but when you have a damn good movie that’s also a unique theatrical experience, there’s little left to want for Christmas.
For those who aren’t chomping at the bit to see Avatar, it’s most likely known as the film with the blue people in it. But clocking in at 161 minutes, there’s so much more to Avatar – both in plot and style.
The Na’vi are Amazon-like humanoids, the natural inhabitants of the planet Pandora, a world that takes fives years of commuting to reach. Given the planet’s reputation for violence, the human military presence there is overwhelming, with its primary job being to protect the corporation attempting to mine the incredibly value mineral unobtainium. That’s right, the hard to find metal is called unobtainium. It’s not a term Cameron created, there’s precedent for it in engineering and science fiction, but it does sound silly when you don’t know the context.
There are two ways to get the goods – honey or vinegar. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is trying the diplomatic approach, using technology to inhabit a hybrid Na’vi-human being – an avatar – so she can live among the Na’vi. On the brute force side is military commander Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who wants to just smoke ’em out and take it.
Through a twist of fate, wheelchair-bound former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is offered the chance to act as a bridge between war and peace. In a predictable turn, Jake begins to understand the seemingly strange ways of the Na’vi and learns to value all the resources that the planet can offer — not just the ones with high price tags.
You can grade Avatar in any of three ways — as sheer entertainment, as a technical achievement, or as a parable.
Judging Avatar strictly on its ability to tell a story through plot and character development, compelling story arcs, credible dialogue, and the wonder of Cameron’s world, the film earns a mixed grade. Watching Jake discover the wonder of walking again, then learning to soar, is sheer joy. The beauty of Pandora is tremendous and Cameron has indeed created a complex world filled with creatures both terrifying and mesmerizing. It’s a little reminiscent of the jungle scenes in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying or squirm-worthy. Where Cameron doesn’t excel is in the script department. Some of the dialogue is cheesy to the point of grating. It’s akin to George Lucas’s Star Wars – if you love the films, you’re going to be able to overlook this flaw. If you’re on the edge, it may tip you over the side to snickering. Grade: B.
On the technical level, Avatar is far superior than any other film released this year. It’s a spectacle, an experience, a visual wonder. This was a film meant for viewing in 3D, and having seen it in that format, the thought of watching it on a regular television screen produces a profound sense of grief. Cameron has set a new standard for filmmaking and whether others can keep up – technologically or financially – remains to be seen. Grade: A+.
Finally, the moral behind Cameron’s story is pretty obvious. Big business and government are willing to destroy a planet in order to profit. There’s very little finessing when it comes to the environmental parable at play in Avatar, but Cameron isn’t known for being subtle. While it’s not the most sophisticated or nuanced messaging ever, neither was WALL∙E, and that worked. Grade: A.
With all of the other distractions, the actual acting is often the least noticeable part of the film. Worthington, practically unknown before last summer’s Terminator Salvation, is an excellent selection for the former Marine. Brawny enough to be convincingly tough from his wheelchair, he’s also got a teddy bear quality that suits him in his avatar role. Opposite him as a potential love interest, Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) is never seen as anything other than a Na’vi, but provides a strong voice for the warrior woman.
Weaver and Lang provide great supporting characters as the competing humans determined to win – at almost any cost to the other. Weaver is particularly good at thawing from the frigid scientist to the caring nurturer. Lang experiences no remorse or enlightenment, so by maintaining his gruff, military bravado he does everything required of him.
For all the wonderful elements of Avatar, it still seems likely that there’s a limited audience for it. Those willing to explore Pandora will be rewarded, but skeptics may find plenty of fodder to support a distaste for science fiction. Which is their loss, because Avatar is a spectacle that should be seen by all who appreciate movie making at its finest.