You probably don’t need me to tell you about the hype that’s followed Avatar, the first film from director James Cameron since 1997’s Titanic. I’ve been following the project from a distance since it was nothing more than a vague story description years ago and have been awaiting Cameron’s return for just as long. It was only with a story that ran in Time Magazine earlier this year that the mythical project even seemed real. As the film started to be revealed, many decided to get a jumpstart on the backlash. Among the comments that people began lobbing comments like: “it looks like an expensive FernGully,” “it looks like a moving Yes album cover,” “it sounds like Dances with Wolves in space,” and of course “these characters look like Smurfs.” Even if there’s some slight truth to a couple of those statements, I don’t think the people who said them are going to stand by their sight unseen dismissals, what Cameron has delivered is a film that is far too big and too grand to be brought down by their cheap shots.
The film is set in the year 2154 on a moon called Pandora, a place with rich deposits of a rare and valuable mineral called unobtainium. There’s a corporation called SecFor seeking to mine this substance, but they must contend with the planet’s indigenous population, a species of tall blue humanoids called the Na’vi. Because there’s a particularly large concentration of unobtainium on the spot of the Na’vis’ capital, a huge tree that’s been hollowed out and inhabited, and they’re beginning to think about using force to take over. Looking for an alternative, a scientific officer named Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has started a program allowing the humans to create full sized Na’vis that can be controlled remotely by humans while lying in pods back at the base; these controlled clones are called “avatars” and they hope that they can be used both for study and for the furthering of diplomacy with the Na’vi.
That’s when our hero comes onto the scene. The company had developed an avatar to the genome of a man who was killed before he could start to control it. Rather than scrap the expensive avatar they invite his brother, an injured marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), to control it as he shares the genome and has enough military skills to be an effective security guard while the scientists are running missions on the surface of Pandora. Sully takes to the controlling of his avatar quickly but is still unfamiliar with the Pandoran terrain. After Sully is separated from his group and stranded in the unforgiving forests, he is saved by a Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who brings him into the Na’vi capital. Seeing an interaction between Sully and a forest entity as a sign from their gods, the Na’vi decide to allow Sully to stay with them and learn their ways. Sully begins to appreciate this culture, but his superior officers want him to use the opportunity to help them mount a military campaign.
By its nature, the film is in many ways separated into two distinct sections which are both very impressive in their own ways, the hard sci-fi world of the human base and the lush natural world of the Pandoran forests. The human section is where Cameron shows off his ability to have live actors interact with environments that are almost entirely CGI. Among the cool technologies on display are computer interfaces that look like some kind of holograms, a massive cryo-stasis bay seen in an amazing opening scene, some really neat looking future helicopters, and some mechanized suits that are like the 7.0 version of the one used in the final scene of Cameron’s Aliens.
But this isn’t going to be a movie that’s remembered for its well designed fort of the future, it’s going to be remembered as the film which brought the planet of Pandora to life. In the past, depictions of alien worlds were restrained by the flora and fauna of our own world. Tatooine was really just Tunisia, Hoth was really just Norway, and Vulcan was really just a soundstage with matte paintings of strange rocks in the distant background. Here though, the whole world and everything in it appear to have been built from the ground up to be a truly foreign and often beautiful. The creatures on the surface and in the air are wholly original, we see five legged beasts of burden, hammer headed charging rhino like things, and giant semi-reptilian flying creatures that are ridden by the local population. What’s truly amazing about all this besides the painstaking design is the way it’s all integrated with the characters and the action. It always feels like a seamless and integrated world.
Then there are the Na’vi, the film’s greatest effects accomplishment. The Na’vi are fully CGI and but their movement and dialogue are based on performances by real actors. This revolution in motion capture technology is the element of all this that will probably prove to be this film’s most lasting legacy. The performances by all the people playing Na’vi is on screen and has not been muffled by the fact that they’re acting through a CGI character. It was one thing to have a single character like Gollum being conveyed through motion capture, but an entire species is a very different thing, especially when they have this much screen time. What we’re seeing here is less like Gollum and more like what Robert Zhemekis has been trying to do with his series of entirely motion captured films, only done significantly better.
Now before I get too far in praising the film’s technological achievements, I do think there’s room for improvement with this technology. As cool as the Na’vi are, they aren’t human, and I suspect we have a long way to go before an actual human could be replicated through motion capture without the uncanny valley creeping in. You’ll also notice that there’s not a single scene in this movie where one of the Na’vi has any sort of meaningful interaction with a live action human. While the humans often interact quite well with the CGI environments, I do suspect that some of these CGI characters would look a little less impressive if they were being compared side to side with a living breathing human for extended lengths of time. It would seem that Cameron has pretty carefully created this story to show off everything that’s good about this technology and hide some of the things that aren’t quite there yet. There’s nothing wrong with that that and as far as the product at hand is concerned this is a wise filmmaking decision, just be a little careful before declaring this a revolution.
All of these visuals are rendered if full 3D. I’ve been a critic of 3D ever since it started to be a craze again for the first time since the last time it died off in the 80s. 3D is a technology that for most of its lifetime has been used for one simple purpose to throw stuff at the audience for no reason other than to make the audience go “ooh” while they do it. It’s been used largely for animated films that did not interest me and blatantly gimmicky horror films. I’ve done nothing but laugh whenever I’ve heard people say they envisioned a time when all movies are made in 3D, I mean, do we really need a world where The Informant is made in 3D? But for all I’ve railed against the technology, I’ve always tempered my criticism by adding the disclaimer: “we’ll see what Cameron does with it before casting a final verdict.” So, now that Cameron has shown his hand my final verdict is that… the jury’s still out. The use of the technology is certainly different than I expected, objects never come out of the screen, instead what Cameron has created is a canvas where there are layers of Mise-en-scène existing in a three dimensional world. These layers look like they project backwards into the screen rather than out into the audience, and Cameron resists any and every urge to throw stuff out at the audience even when such an effect would be justifies by what’s on screen. The result is that we are shown a three dimensional, but self contained world rather than a two dimensional world in which objects occasionally escape the screen and invade the world of the audience. That said, technology does still seem a bit restrained by the sides of the frame, there’s a certain awkwardness when the three dimensional screen stops and the theater wall end and I think they’re still going to have to deal with this before I can fully embrace the idea, and no matter how much they improve the technology I still don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where a 3D version of Funny People is going to be worth fumbling with special glasses over. Still, I am convinced that it is worth dealing with for event movies like this.
That the technology behind this project is amazing is probably going to be undisputed, the film’s script, specifically its storyline, which will probably be more hotly contested. The similarities between this and Dances With Wolves are not without merit, they are both largely about people from “our” civilization who find themselves stranded with a “foreign” society, where he comes to respect and ultimately defend those he once called the enemy. Now before you declare this a ripoff, remember that Kevin Costner’s epic wasn’t the first story to have that idea either, this formula can probably be traces all the way back to the Moses story in the Bible. Most of the best science fiction films basically retell age old stories in a new way, much the way that Star Wars an incarnation of the hero of a thousand faces or how Jurassic Park can be seen as a variation on Frankenstein.
The other issue is that a lot of the characters here sort of fit into existing archetypes. This isn’t as much of a problem with the Jake Sully character, who mainly exists to be an everyman that the audience can relate to. More problematic are characters like the film’s villain played by Stephen Lang, who’s pretty much a gruff cliché of an army officer and Joel David Moore’s role which is a pretty standard geek scientist. Tough-as-nails women are a recurring theme in Cameron’s work, and there are three of them here: the main Na’vi woman fits pretty well in the Amazon warrior model, Sigourney Weaver plays a scientist fighting against the system (and the system never listens to people like this in movies), and Michelle Rodriguez plays a role that’s pretty much identical to the Vasquez character from Cameron’s own film Aliens. Also, the dialogue here is strictly workmen-like. There are no cringe inducing line readings, but there’s also nothing overly impressive in this writing either.
So what we have is a not so creative story with a cast of somewhat stale characters and some unspectacular dialogue; why am I not concerned about this? After all, we critics make a habit of deriding effects vehicles that put all their emphasis on effects rather than on telling a great story, what makes this different? It’s mostly because the story, for all its familiarity, isn’t bad and neither is the dialogue or even the characters, the poor elements of the film never rarely intrude on the positive elements. While none of these elements really help the movie, they tend not to hurt it either. The other reason it works is that, while the story is thin, this movie isn’t mindless; there’s actually a pretty good allegory to the sad history of the Native Americans in addition to strong anti-war and pro-environment messages in the film. Not only is the film not mindless, it also isn’t uncreative, it’s just that it shows off its creativity in its visuals and in the world that it creates rather than in its storyline. I’m reminded in many ways, and this will probably be seen as a negative by some, of last year’s film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That was another film which people loved to dismiss for its similarities to an Oscar winning film from the 90s, and I saw their point, but to me that was a film which took a B minus grade script and turned it into something greater though smart and impassioned filmmaking.
I should also stress that this is an action movie, and as an action movie it frickin’ rocks. I think a big part of why the action scenes and battle scenes here are so effective is that Cameron knows that bigger isn’t always necessarily better. When given the ability to create unlimitedly large battlegrounds a lot of filmmakers have gone way overboard and created armies larger than the entire population of Chicago shooting streams of arrows that block out the sun. The result is usually an eyesore that is only ever seen in small parts. There’s none of that here, all the conflicts are reasonably sized; and Cameron also knows when to cut set-pieces off before they wear out their welcome the way that, say, the battle for Zion in The Matrix Revolutions did. The fun isn’t limited to the climactic battle scene either, there’s a great chase scene between Sully and a big lion type thing as well as an amazing fight towards the end involving the mechanized suit.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of Avatar is that it manages to generate a genuine sense of awe, which projects of lesser ambition just cannot deliver. Cameron doesn’t just create amazing sights; he dwells on them and allows the viewer to inhabit the world of them before being shuffled off to the next adventure. Many are comparing the film to Star Wars, and for good reason, but I think that when the film is at its best it harkens back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that Spielberg film the visuals had both the characters and the audience mesmerized while staring at the magic they were witnessing, I had that feeling a number of times during the journey that Cameron took me on and that is a rare thing these days. Don’t give me nitpicks about the film’s flaws, all of which are more than made up for by the film’s many other virtues and I was positively giddy when I left the theater.
**** out of Four