Monday, December 21, 2009



A funny thing happened as Leona Lewis started singing at the end of AVATAR. I set my 3-D glasses up on the brim of my hat, allowed my eyes to adjust, and took a deep breath after spending nearly three hours on the planet Pandora. I felt amazed, enthralled, and even a little moved. And then it dawned on me: most of what I was just feeling was in reaction to a cluster of CGI characters! This doesn't happen to me. I don't easily get emotionally invested in a being created on an iMac. Actually that's a lie. Jar Jar Binks did annoy and nauseate me, but I'm talking about positive emotional investment.

In that respect, I gotta hand it to James Cameron. He sure has created something unique if a bunch of blue cartoons can move an audience the way AVATAR does.

The year is 2154. Man is scouring the galaxy for a mineral called unobatium. The stuff is wicked-powerful and worth a fortune. The good news is that man has discovered the motherlode. The bad news is that it's in the hostile natural environment of a planet named Pandora. The worse news is that it's directly under the native settlement of the Na'vi, a humanoid species standing nine feet tall with big cat-like eyes and long tails. Oh yeah, and they're bright blue.

Our protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is dropped into the middle of this problem. Jake is an American Marine paralyzed from the waist down. His twin brother has done a lot of work on a project to infiltrate and observe the Na'vi using an Avatar program. The idea is to uplink Jake's brain and nervous system into a cloned Na'vi body. The project leader Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is reluctant and unconvinced. According to her, it takes a lot more than just a matching set of DNA.

During an early assignment, Jake is separated from the other Avatars and stumbles his way towards the Na'vi settlement. It's here that he first encounters Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). After sparing his life, she comes face to face with Jake. She knows he is not part of her tribe but is unsure about where exactly he comes from. When he is presented to her tribe, it is decided that he will be trained in their culture. Thus an insider for the unobatium mission has been chosen.

As Jake learns the ways of the Na'vi, his superiors keep a close eye on him. Grace is excited and encouraging about his research. However, people like Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) are antsy. They are quick to remind Jake why he is there and seem ready to move in and get the payload they so desperately want with or without Jake's help.

Quite honestly, expressing my feelings about AVATAR seems to be a bit tricky. Let me start with the obvious: I loved it. There are few films made these days that must be seen in a theatre, and AVATAR is one of the few. I mean really, how much is it worth to watch a Michael Bay Pyrotechnic Extravaganza? It's said that AVATAR was in development for fifteen years. If that is true, then every day of that stretch was time well-spent.

Not only is the animation stunning, but the rendering of the whole film in 3-D seems like it takes the medium to a whole new level. The 3-D in this film is not used to achieve cheap stunts and trickery. Instead, it is used to give the run through the jungle of Pandora a density it wouldn't otherwise achieve.

What makes this movie work is how it submerges the audience into Pandora. From the sight of banshees filling the sky to the sounds of insects zipping past your head, every sensory moment of this film has been designed to draw you into the story and not let your mind wander. It's rare these days that a movie goes to such lengths to create a theatrical experience. However as we all know by now, visual style will only get you so far. It's all for naught if the story sucks.

While the story isn't perfect, it is indeed well mapped-out and engaging. I was surprised at just how moved I was during some of the film's most dramatic moments, especially since my heart was being moved by a bunch of blue CG beings in their lush CG environment. What James Cameron has done is create an entire alien race and culture and given them a mythology all their own without going overboard and losing the audience-at-large. Essentially he has done what George Lucas always wanted to do but never could on his best day with an entire team of monkeys on typewriters backing him up.

Building on the mysticism of Pandora and the Na'vi, Cameron uses a traditional story of forbidden love to draw us into his greater themes. The film has a strong undercurrent of environmentalism, especially in the way the Na'vi are at one with their surroundings. It also has a lot to say about the nature of imperialism and the drastic unforeseen dangers that every superpower looking to invade a sovereign region to take what they want faces. Gotta hand it to Cameron; that's some pretty good subtext to work into a flick about tall, dragon-riding, archery-lovin' smurfs!

While I am still blown away by this movie and giving it top marks, don't for a moment let me lead you to believe the film is flawless. A big aspect of the love story is deeply predictable; however it's not the film's worst offence. No, the film's worst offence is a particular showdown and the manner in which the villain in said showdown seems terminator-like for no apparent reason. Give him your best shot; he'll take it and just keep coming. It's an unfortunate plot point since it lessens the impact of a truly unique film. Slightly.

Essentially AVATAR feels like a James Cameron Greatest Hits compilation. Take the effects of THE ABYSS, the action of ALIENS, the gunfights of T2 and the forbidden love of TITANIC. Cameron has taken his best tracks from those efforts and compiled them into one imaginative playlist. It’s a carefully crafted playlist, however, and one with a song for everybody. And despite the defects, AVATAR is a rare film that employs every trick imaginable and a film that will stay with you long after those CGI characters have disappeared from the screen.