James Cameron’s Avatar has been 15 years in the making, requiring technology to advance far enough to realize the director’s grand US$237 million vision.
While the expectations for the film have been strangely eroded by lackluster trailers, the soaring visuals and involving narrative of his first feature film since Titanic prove it was well worth the wait.
In 2154 AD, Earth is dying, seriously depleted of natural resources. Pandora, a moon 4.3 light years away, is thriving and verdant, thanks to its sentient inhabitants’ – the Na’vi – harmonious relationship with their environment. One tribe, the Omaticaya, happens to reside upon plentiful deposits of unobtainium, a valuable mineral that could remedy Earth’s energy crisis.
To either diplomatically convince the natives to relocate, or find intelligence to use against them in battle, an anthropological team, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), has been commissioned to win the Na’vis’ trust using “avatars”, human-alien hybrids that resemble the Na’vi, and are genetically matched to and psychically controlled by human operators.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-Marine, has been offered a chance to replace his murdered scientist twin brother as an avatar controller and in doing so, earn back a pair of working legs, as promised by Col. Mile Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who seems more interested in combat than resolution.
As Sully gets to know the Na’vi, he gradually feels that “out there” is the true world, while “in here” is the dream, and his loyalties between Dr. Augustine, Col. Quaritch and his Na’vi friends become increasingly muddled.
Avatar has ambitious messages to deliver, and does so with mixed success. It’s an anti-colonial fable with a strong environmental slant, drawing on history, mythology and cinematic predecessors, including Cameron’s own films, to flesh out its emotional core and narrative, from Disney-esque princess and attempted Titanic romance to Terminator-like weapons. It’s also an exploration of identity, of what it means to be human, with parallels to our own plugged-in lives.
Like District 9, it inverts the Us vs. Them dynamic, portraying power-hungry humans as the menace. The Na’vi are a composite of several indigenous races, scantily clad, adorned with braids, feathers and paint, and are fervent believers in the spirit world. Their battle to preserve their homeland is an eerie echo of what we have repeatedly seen before.
This moralizing is a touch simplistic, particularly as we’re used to darker, even cynical, films warning us about how we are our own worst enemies. The tale’s emotional richness comes more from Sully’s journey as a man who finds his rightful place in the world – one that isn’t even his own – and the vibrant evocation of Pandora, and all its wondrous details.
Pandora’s surreally beautiful environment – awash with vibrant colors – contrasts with the mechanical reality of the human military base, without entirely disconnecting. The lush alien world teems with glowing flora – tubular, feathery plants that light up in response to Sully’s curious touch – and fantastic fauna reminiscent of Earth creatures past and present: multi-eyed rhinos, yellow pterodactyls and reptilian panthers. Just like Sully, you will soon be captivated by Pandora, vastly preferring it to the human reality.
The blue, feline, larger-than-life Na’vi are similarly entrancing. Their humanoid shape and large feline eyes perhaps make our sympathy inevitable – Cameron has steered clear of the emotional challenge an insect-like Alien monster would present – but their unique design and execution are nonetheless impressive, with imaginative features such as feelers on their tails that can link into their surroundings in a multitude of ways.
Sam Worthington, last seen in the misguided Terminator: Salvation, a best-forgotten offshoot of Cameron’s franchise, is well cast as Sully, his relatively unknown status enabling him to merge with the role, effectively balancing his human and avatar selves.
Sully’s chemistry with the Pocahontas-like Neytiri (Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana) fails to match Titanic intensity, but serves its purpose, reinforcing Sully’s love for his adopted home.
Cameron’s muse Weaver is in fine form as Dr. Augustine, a driven and intelligent woman whose interest in the Na’vi transcends science. Col. Quaritch and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) are the rather one-dimensional but entertaining antagonists, respectively a muscle-bound bully and passive-aggressive administrator. Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) is more likable than usual as Trudy Chacon, a spunky fighter pilot. Wes Studi (Mystery Men) and C. C. H. Pounder (Orphan) are among the resonant voices behind the Na’vi, as the king and queen of the clan.
In addition to heavy-handed moralizing and flat villains, Avatar is occasionally let down by Sully’s unrealistic luck in Pandora, dragging action sequences and clich*d dialogue. Still, a scattering of humorous moments and the fact that the actors never take themselves too seriously help lighten the parable’s self-consciousness.
Ultimately, Avatar‘s pioneering effects and epic storytelling far outweigh its flaws, elevating it to the heights of iconic cinema, joining Cameron’s previous opuses. While it’s unlikely to drastically change the audience’s mindset, it should stay in minds for a long time to come.
Avatar (Lightstorm Entertainment, 161 min)
Directed by James Cameron
Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau
Written by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang