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Rapid Review: Avatar

December 20, 2009

SPOILER ALERT – Certain plot points may be revealed below (nothing earth-shattering, but just a warning…)

As I write this review, I still have that glazed-over, blinking “I’ve been living in a dark theater for the past three hours” visage.  Still, it is a testament to James Cameron’s Avatar that I was so immersed in the movie, I still can’t quite distance myself from the world he so seamlessly created in Pandora.

I was worried the special effects would overshadow the script, but I am happy to eat my words.  Cameron has assembled a fine ensemble cast, and the voice-over work by the actors who play the strikingly blue Na’vi is wonderfully three-dimensional and poignant.  Pandora is awash in shades of blue, green and purple.  Some of its most stunning imagery occurs at night, when the very fibers of the trees and grass glow and reverberate with life.  It is a milestone in CGI, and worth every penny it cost to create.

Going native never looked so good...

Sam Worthington (who was the only redeeming thing about this summer’s Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a former Marine (or member of the “Jarhead” tribe, he says on introducing himself to the Na’vi) who has been recruited by a large corporation’s science division to take the place of his dead twin brother.  The scientists, led by Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine,  infiltrate the ranks of Pandora’s native population (the Na’vi) by inhabiting the bodies of avatars – made of a combination of human and Na’vi DNA.  Jake, who has lost the use of his legs in a random shooting, has the ability, when he is in the body of his avatar, Jakescully (as the Na’vi call him, running both names together) to explore the depths and nuances of Pandora’s forest world.  The audience gets to see this spiritual and physical awakening through Jake’s eyes, and like him, we grow to love and admire the spirit and beliefs of the Na’vi.

Of course, all is not peaceful on Pandora.  The cool freshness of the forest Na’vi is in direct contrast to the human settlement, which is in fact nothing more than a glorified mining colony, bent on draining Pandora’s natural resources for the dollars and cents they bring back on a dying Earth.  Jake is at first the human colony’s eyes and ears, but he quickly contemplates changing sides, for reasons that are beyond obvious.

The scenes where Jake learns the ways of the noble culture of the Na’vi are the best in the film.  I wish Cameron hadn’t tried to make a “scientific” connection between the Na’vi and the trees they love so well.  Isn’t it enough to  keep it on a mystical level?  Still, it is a minor complaint.  The blue-skinned, lithe Na’vi could have ended up as one-note cartoons in another director’s hands, but much like the unnamed aliens in Cameron’s The Abyss and Aliens, they have clearly outlined motivations and individual personalities.

The best of these, of course, is Jake’s love interest, Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana (who is having a banner year – first Star Trek, now this…).  She is fierce and proud, yet articulate and kind.   It is no wonder Jake wants to go native. 

The battle for Pandora

The film’s last third is its weakest.  As the Na’vi and their human “traitor” friends (as the corporation big wigs call them) prepare to save their world, the film’s weakest character moves to the forefront of the action.  In the grand tradition of Michael Biehn in The Abyss, we have a crazy Marine determined to wreak havoc no matter what the cost.    In this case, the cost is at the expense of the other actors’ underplayed roles. Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch never stops chewing the scenery (or his cigars) to the very end, and I had to wonder, even though Cameron makes a point of telling us that Earth (in Avatar‘s future) is a “dead planet”, would the U.S. government consider sanctioning a corporation’s mercenaries committing genocide willy-nilly?  This may seem like a major spoiler, but it is hinted at heavily in the previews, and even the greenest audience member can sense it coming in the first minute after meating Colonel Quaritch.   Even hard-core former Marines might blink a time or two at the thought of destroying an entire race of people for hunks of metal, be these people blue or not.

Avatar is well worth your money, and while the ecology parable is overtly obvious to the point of Cameron beating you over the head with what Earth’s future might become, it still has a heart and soul that will stand the test of time.  The characters we identify with most are the least human, and that in itself is a point to remember.

My most pleasant surprise in the movie was the canny and witty performance by Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy, a mercenary whose motives are at first ambiguous.  She steals every scene she’s in, and gets some of the only laughs in a film sometimes overly concerned with its own gravitas.  Cameron always has an eye for tough chicks, and she’s a welcome edition to the pantheon of great kick-ass sci-fi heroines.

OVERALL GRADE:  A –   (the minus for too many mercenaries…)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    December 20, 2009 11:35 pm

    You covered everything very well, so all I will add was that I too was fascinated by the use of bioluminescence (after reading your review I felt like I had to use a big word too). It was a small thing that added a wonderful dimension to the world – it helped bring the world to life.

  2. Hazel permalink
    December 21, 2009 10:21 pm

    I saw a review of Avatar last night on TV by the two guys who pretend to be Siskel and Ebert. They both were awestruck by the movie. The one reviewer did comment that the first half was stronger than the second half of the movie. Your review was much better than their review!

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