Movie Review – Avatar (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Avatar is writer-director James Cameron’s first feature film since 2007’s Titanic. Much like Titanic, Avatar is an astonishing technical achievement and great visual artistry in the service of a third-rate script.
Far and away the best part of the film is its computer-generated 3-D setting on a distant alien world called Pandora. Rapacious humans are on Pandora to strip-mine it. The human mission, largely staffed by soul-less mercenaries often resembling biker-gang rejects, is based in a highly fortified, atmospherically sealed compound with a- for didactic purposes- mud-colored decorating scheme. Outside the compound is a lush Amazonian rain forest of majestic trees, exotic plants, fearsome creatures, and sudden sharp drop-offs. The forest is home to the Na’vi, a race resembling blue-skinned supermodels with tails and habitat appropriate clothing. Blue is one of the dominant colors in the vibrantly colored landscape, joined harmoniously by deep purples, greens, and reds. There is also a sacred tree with white semi-translucent hanging vines and delicate spores that float through the forest beneath the tree canopy to deliver signs to the Na’vi, who live in not only mystical but also actual biochemical communion with their spirit-of-the-earth deity.
Although we get a few brief glimpses of other eco-systems inhabited by other blue-skinned tribes, the only other geological feature of note is a mountain range above the forest where huge rocks hang suspended in the clouds. It is a lovely and striking landscape, but the film’s great triumph is the beautiful and beautifully realized forest.
A large part of the film is spent simply exploring and discovering this world through audience proxy Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine. Jake’s consciousness is projected into a lab-grown human-Na’vi hybrid body (that’s how it’s described in the film, although the only apparent human element is facial features somewhat resembling the operator’s) called an avatar. The title doubles as a description of the computer-generated Na’vi and Na’vi-avatar characters inhabiting the computer-generated forest.
Cameron has created a visually unified and wholly convincing artificial reality. The technical-artistic achievement by itself keeps Avatar engrossing for a remarkably long time.
Avatar is highly derivative in its plot, worldview, and characters. It can most efficiently be summarized as the hybrid offspring of Dances with Wolves and Princess Mononoke, although without the latter film’s nuanced view of industrialization. (It borrows from numerous sources, including Cameron’s prior films; the imagery in particular is strongly reminiscent of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator and filmmaker behind Mononoke.) The paint by numbers plot and perfunctory characterization would not necessarily be significant flaws if Avatar was a briskly-plotted genre film. It is, however, a self-serious drama with a weighty, explicit, and aggressively delivered spiritual-environmental message. It needs– demands– a strong foundation.
The flaws are magnified by the film’s excessive length. A drama with a 162 minute running time has no excuse for superficiality.
Jake is by far the film’s best developed character. As the main character he has the most screen time and the plot revolves around his spiritual journey; he also reveals his thoughts in a sometimes awkwardly integrated voiceover narration.
Jake’s guide in his immersion experience is Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), the feisty chief’s daughter and shamaness-in-training tasked with teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi, consisting largely of teaching him to be a hunter. (The women are co-equal hunters with the men; no word on whether men share in the housework in Cameron’s romanticized pre-industrial tribal society utopia.) Neytiri has enough screen time to reveal a personality, although she is primarily a type- love interest combined with spiritual guide. The other Na’vi are only types: Neytiri’s initially hostile father (Wes Studi) and mother (CCH Pounder), who double as, respectively, tribal chief and shamaness; Jake’s disappointed rival in love and war; the nameless extras who fill out the evidently harmonious if impressionistically drawn community.
The human supporting characters are also types. Sigourney Weaver overcomes the limitations of the script to transmute her nature and other cultures-respecting scientist into the film’s most interesting supporting character. Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, and Giovanni Ribisi made me wish they had more to work with. The psychotic military commander played by Stephen Lang is an indefensible caricature.
2 1/2 stars