You are not in Kansas anymore, you are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen, respect that fact every second of every day.
Avatar is really one of those movies I wasn’t very excited about. I understand why others were excited and I knew how enthusiastic director James Cameron was about this gargantuan of a project. And I wasn’t totally against seeing it. But I just didn’t have much interest in seeing it immediately. In fact, I was planning on just waiting for the DVD. But a couple different people suggested that I see it, that it was worth seeing in theaters for the 3-D. And I will say, it was better than I had expected. I left the theater pleased. That being said, there are definite flaws in the film. While they don’t necessarily ruin the film, these flaws stop it from being the epic masterpiece it’s being heralded as.
When I first wrote about the Avatar trailer way back in August, I made a guess at the plot and I wasn’t very far off. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wounded soldier on the lush planet of Pandora in 2154. He’s been offered the assignment originally given to his now dead twin brother: to be connected mentally to a bodyshell of a Na’vi (the sentient race on the planet) to explore the world and possibly help the human scientists heal the broken relationship between the Na’vi and themselves. Jake gets lost on his first day out and is reluctantly saved by the alien princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Brought to the village, the chief decides they should teach Jake to be a Na’vi warrior and that his daughter should train him. While Jake starts to fall for Neytiri, he also begins to love the planet. Unfortunately, both the head of the human army and the head of RDA (the company sponsoring the expedition) have no desire to learn about the culture or planet and just want to get at the rare ore Unobtanium.
There is some good stuff in this movie, to be sure. Easily the most noticeable are the special effects and the style of the film, which are actually good. It is a very beautiful world Mr. Cameron has crafted. You completely understand why Jake loves it and wants to ultimately protect it. And you do forget that it isn’t real; in fact, the human facilities look more alien and uninviting the longer he immerses himself into the world of Pandora. The creatures in the world look like they fit within this world, but are reminiscent of Earth fauna (one creature looks like a mixture of a wild dog and a panther… but with six legs). Something that has to be mentioned, however, is that the majority of the movie is actually more computer animation than live action, so it is much easier for Pandora to look real because there is rarely anything to compare it to. Whenever you see an actual actor in that world, the background doesn’t look nearly as effective. There is also a moment early on when the Colonel demonstrates their giant robotic suits to Jake. The computerized general inside the suit looked really bad, especially compared to the rest of the film. It kind of reminded me of the Quidditch scene from Sorcerer’s Stone. This is really the only time the special effects don’t hold up, but it was so off from the rest of the film that the moment stood out just that much more. For the record, the 3D does make some difference in the way you see the movie. Occasionally I would take the glasses off and the movie didn’t feel as lush or immersive as with the glasses on. I think much of the experience was helped by the big screen as well. I do have to wonder how much will be lost when Avatar goes to DVD.
And while the story has issues (which I’ll explain later), most of the characters are well-written and well acted. When I reviewed Star Trek, I praised Zoe Saldana for her performance as Uhura. She’s good at playing strong women and this is the case here, too. What could have been a whiny, irritating heroine in the hands of another actress is instead a resilient, smart and skillful warrior who just happens to be a female. Sigourney Weaver is back to true form as Grace, the head scientists who cares about the Na’vi even if she doesn’t completely understand them. She’s a fun character to watch, especially as she goes from being tough on Jake to reluctantly growing fond of him. While he doesn’t have a huge role, Joel Moore (best known as the scrawny guy from Dodgeball) is good as Norm, one of the other members of the Avatar program. Michelle Rodriguez plays the fighter pilot Trudy. Like Neytiri, the character doesn’t feel like a woman trying to be a tough fighter pilot; she feels like a fighter pilot who just happens to be a woman. And Worthington isn’t bad as Jake; there is nothing revolutionary about his performance, but he comes off as likable despite his cockiness. He also has a really good voice for narration, which is a good considering he is the film’s narrator. And it’s because of all these characters that you feel invested in what is happening to them.
One of the big issues I have with the film is the story itself. The fact is, we’ve heard this story before, many times. Even in the theater, I started to count the movies Cameron stole plot points from. The obvious is Dances with Wolves (which many reviewers have pointed out). Funnily enough, I also found a ton of the 90s children’s film Fern Gully in it as well; guy paid to help destroy the forest gets turned into a creature of the forest, guy learns importance of the forest and falls for forest girl, girl discovers guy lied, guy redeems himself by helping to save the forest. Uncanny, isn’t it? And there are a few different points that seem extremely similar to a little film called Pocahontas. Neytiri is more or less betrothed to a Na’vi warrior who sees Jake as a threat. When the village turns on Jake, the princess protects him by shielding him with her own body. And the seeds from their tree goddess act suspiciously like Pocahontas’ leaves that swirl whenever something profound is said or done (plus, John Smith isn’t that far away from Jake Sully). One can argue that no script is completely original, that every story uses themes from the stories that came before it in one way or another. Still, there is a fine line between writing a film whose allusions strengthen the story and a film simply suffering from lazy writing. Avatar leans to the latter.
My real problem with the movie is how obvious and stereotypical the two opposing sides are. The two main villains are a selfish white male CEO and a blood-thirsty white male Army Colonel. The former acts like Gordon Gecko and the latter like an extra from Apocalypse Now (or Sarge from Red vs Blue). Alternatively, the Na’vi are perfect. They not only want peace and harmony, but also have achieved equality between the sexes (the women are not only allowed, but encouraged to be warriors and hunters). So much of the movie is really about imperialism and the abuse of Africans and Native Americans by Britain and America respectively (the Chief is played by a Native American while the rest of the Na’vi are played by African Americans and it’s obvious this is no coincidence). In other words, this movie has a huge guilt trip woven within it and the entirety of Western culture is boiled down to selfishness and thoughtless violence. The fact that the natives are so pure and the human army is so immensely cruel and evil means that there are absolutely no shades of gray nor any complex emotional feelings about the war that is on the horizon for the majority of the film. Once again, it’s lazy writing. Still, some might question how one can show an invading army as human (for lack of a better word). But watch Princess Mononoke. It’s a similar plot; a human army fighting against the wilderness they are trying to mine while a young man attempts to stop the war. But the humans are mining to survive. Their leader is a woman who has reached out to local prostitutes and lepers and given them shelter, safety and honest work while teaching them to defend themselves and each other. Her actions against the creatures of the forest are not morally right by any means, but her intentions are to help her people, not to hoard riches. This kind of complexity is severely lacking in Avatar and really hurts the movie’s effectiveness.
There are more flaws in particular details of the story. For one, a big deal is made of the Na’vi breaking the friendship between themselves and the scientists. Apparently, the scientists did something to truly offend the Na’vi, but it is never explain. It’s a big plot point (considering they accept Jake because they believe him to be different from the scientists) but it’s never explained. There is also a moment at the beginning of the movie when Jake first gets his avatar and he walks outside to find several avatars playing basketball and enjoying the base’s recreational area. There are at least half a dozen unnamed avatars in the scene, but the only ones we see for the rest of the film are Jake, Grace and Norm. It feels like Cameron said, “I want to see them doing something human. That would be cool!” and didn’t think much more about it. Also, no one actually explains whether or not a human’s life is directly connected to his avatar’s. Whether it does or not changes the stakes drastically. Won’t Jake be on more alert if he knows (like the crew of the Nebakanezer) that he dies if his avatar dies? Sure, this is the only avatar he can use, so he’ll be careful either way, but there is a big difference between being dead and not being about to use your flesh puppet. And there is a huge Macguffin that helped the filmmakers get around Jake needing his avatar once this is all over. Let’s just say that the Na’vi have a magic power that would never be used for anything expect this one situation.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on the film. There are plenty of good details that many sci-fi films would dismiss. The air on Pandora is indeed poisonous, so the humans have to take careful measures when walking outside (which is another good reason to develop the Avatar program). The Na’vi are also much taller than humans and it’s nice to see that not all sentient aliens are our size. Jake’s training as a full Na’vi warrior takes several months, so his transition from arrogant jarhead to one with the Na’vi seems natural and genuine. The same can be said for the relationship between Jake and Neytiri (I was also relieved that when Jake finally expresses his feelings for her, Neytiri doesn’t play the “this can never be” card that a certain other Cameron heroine did). Actually, the two characters have chemistry and relate to each other’s strength as warriors and soldiers. And I was moved by the movie as a whole, mostly because the world is indeed gorgeous and most of the characters are relatable. Avatar is far from a bad film. All that being said, it could have been better.
Overall: Stunning backgrounds and strong overall character development, Avatar could have been my favorite film of 2009, but lazy writing, various plot holes and lack of challenging themes turned a potentially epic masterpiece into just a strong blockbuster.
3 out of 5 stars