Avatar Review


James Cameron’s “Avatar” is unlike any experience I’ve ever had at the movies. It’s the kind of movie I expect people will feel like they need to see in order to be part of the popular culture. In ten years, when people look back on the films of 2009 (and of this decade for that matter), “Avatar” is likely to be one of the first they remember. It’s that kind of movie, and deservedly so. From the first establishing shot of the world of Pandora to the time the end credits roll, we are totally immersed in the film. The 3D and visual effects are awe-inspiring, but they never detract from the story or the characters. Words don’t really do it justice. You need to see “Avatar” to believe it.

The year is 2154. On the distant world of Pandora, a group of soldiers and scientists from Earth are mining for “unobtainium” a mineral worth a whole lot of money back home. Pandora is populated by a number of bizarrely fascinating creatures, as well as a native humanoid population called the Na’vi. The largest pocket of unobtainium happens to be located directly under a village of Na’vi, and because the people are nature-loving, they refuse move out of their Home Tree and let it be destroyed. So the humans must choose to solve the problem diplomatically or militarily.

Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). He is a paraplegic ex-Marine corporal who is to replace his dead brother in the avatar program on Pandora run by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who, despite having (literally) written the book on the Na’vi, hasn’t had much diplomatic success with them recently. Avatars are creatues created by combining human and Na’vi DNA. They are controlled remotely by the human who matches their DNA, which is why Jake is the only person able to control his dead brother’s avatar. Grace is frustrated with Jake because she fears he will just be another “trigger-happy Marine,” but Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) couldn’t be happier to have a Marine inside the avatar program. He doesn’t have much time for diplomacy and wants Jake to penetrate Na’vi society to give him as much information as possible to mount a successful attack on them. He gives Jake plenty of incentive to work for him. If he successfully completes his mission, Quaritch will make sure he gets his legs back.

Jake eventually meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the leader of the Na’vi tribe located at the Home Tree (and over the unobtainium). She presents Jake to her father who decides he is worthy of warrior training. Jake trains with Neytiri during the day, and when his avatar sleeps at night, he reports back to both Grace and Quaritch. As Jake’s training goes forward, he starts to really enjoy life as a Na’vi warrior and begins to fall in love with Neytiri. He starts thinking of his time as an avatar as real life, and his time as a human as an unwanted dream. when he is unable to meet his deadline for a diplomatic solution, Jake is forced to choose which society he will stand and fight with.

The biggest star of “Avatar” is Pandora, a complex and totally unique world created by Cameron. The wildlife on Pandora is diverse and dangerous, with deadly dragon-type creatures with the warriors fly on (and even bigger ones which they fear), sacred jellyfish-like beings, vicious reptilian wolves, and powerful hammerhead rhinos. The landscape is also incredible, with dense forests, giant waterfalls, and floating mountains, not to mention the coolest tree-house ever.

The film also features some of the greatest visual effects in cinematic history. Cameron uses 3D to enhance the overall experience. He doesn’t go for cheap thrills by making things jump out at us, but rather uses the 3D to give everything greater depth. Since the trailer debuted months ago, there has been a lot of worry about the look of the Na’vi, but Cameron (and the actors) deserve credit for doing a tremendous job with the motion-capture technology. It’s better and more life-like than any of Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture characters so far times ten.

Sam Worthington starred in “Terminator: Salvation,” so blockbusters are not unfamiliar territory, but this is his first crack at being the leading man. He does an admirable job, but is overshadowed by the special effects and some of the other characters. However, this does not at all detract from the overall success of the picture, so he deserves some credit. Zoe Saldana has a more difficult job (she doesn’t appear in human form at all), and she does a terrific job. She makes Neytiri one of the film’s most developed characters. I wish Sigourney Weaver did more films, for she is a joy to watch as Grace. Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez have supporting roles as a slimey corporate lackey and a conflict but helpful pilot. But the standout actor is Stephen Lang, whose Quaritch is so despicable, he’ll have your skin crawling.

“Avatar” needs to make a whole lot of money to become profitable and encourage future endeavors like this. Costs are rumored to be in excess of $300 million, but when Oscar nominations start rolling in (and they certainly will for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Visual Effects at the very least), I don’t expect hitting that number will be a problem.

For a film with the hype of “Avatar” to be considered a success is astounding. For it to be this good is downright unbelievable. After this, I can’t imagine what the hype will be like for Cameron’s next film. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 12 years for it.

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