After conquering the world of cinema with such unforgettable critical and box office successes such as Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Titanic, Canadian-born writer director James Cameron took a long hiatus from telling fictional stories and got lost at sea, figuratively speaking, by making a series of documentaries about underwater life. Then, during the holiday season of 2009, 20th Century Fox studios released Cameron’s long awaited return to the science-fiction genre, Avatar. As was the case with Cameron’s previous efforts, Avatar was the most expensive movie ever made at the time (and still is given that the movie is still very recent), employing revolutionary visual effects and vaunting a unique and immersive 3D experience for movie goers hoping to get all the bang for their bucks as possible. Did the film fulfill its promises?
The film tells the story of a paraplegic soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who agrees to take his dead twin brother’s place in an important colonization mission on a fantastic jungle-covered moon planet named Pandora. The importance of Pandora is in its valuable natural resources, something our home planet of Earth seems to be lacking in this futuristic tale. Everyone appears to have made an investment in this mission: the military, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) are there to tame the local alien population the Na’vi, the corporations, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) are there to extract the resources, and finally there is the scientific community, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are guided by their inhibition to study and observe Pandora’s remarkable ecosystem as well as the dominant Na’vi species. Jake Sully is to participate in some exploration missions on the planet’s surface, but the twist is that he will be doing so through an avatar, that is, the body of a Na’vi creature, thus blessing him with the ability to walk once again (this is accomplished through some rather complex and sophisticated technology that I won’t bog down the review with). Things go awry during one of their exploration expeditions, which separates Jake from the rest of the group. Lost in the thick and treacherous jungle of Pandora, he encounters Neytiri (Zöe Saldana), daughter of a Na’vi chief. Through Neytiri Jake comes to learn about and appreciate the Na’vi culture, but is forced to make life changing decisions when the military announce their plan to strike the Na’vi at their very core and be done with their mission on Pandora.
Where does one begin when writing about Avatar? The film is still very much in the conscious of film lovers and debaters, seeing how it spent a heck of a long time in theatres (and is returning to theatres later this summer), made the most money of any movie ever, and was also in the running for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony. The whole ‘most expensive movie ever’ tag probably had bit to do with it as well... Needless to say that it entered theatres last Christmas with lofty expectations resting on its shoulders. After all, Cameron kept repeating how he had been working and planning the film for over a decade. That’s a bloody long time to make a single movie if you as me.
I think there are two ways to discuss what is it like to watch James Cameron’s Avatar, and quite honestly I don’t see any other way of dissecting this particular film. First, there is the experience, that is to say what was it like to venture into Cameron’s elaborate Pandora planet and embark on the high-octane adventure the character of Jake Sully lives through. Visual effects, score, cinematography, action set pieces, small character beats, all these play a crucial aspect in making that experience worthwhile. In that respect, the movie Avatar fulfills every single promise it confidently boated prior to its initial release. With regards to the technical aspects of filmmaking (or craftsmanship if you prefer), especially with a film such as Avatar which wants to invite viewers to completely different world and thus demands elaborate set designs and visuals, there are few films in history that can confidently stand toe-to-toe with Avatar. The film is stunning from start to finish. Whether in theatres or Blu-ray, I can only offer that highest praise to the director’s technical crew as well as the director’s vision. Pandora really as to be seen in order to be believed. The intricacies and sophistication with which the world’s ecosystem is realized is a true rarity in film. The principal selling point is of course the Na’vi who, while they are evidently mostly cg creations, move with a grace that is difficult to find in visual effects laden blockbusters these days. Cameron wanted to make the species as realistic as possible, including facial expressions, something that is notoriously difficult to reproduce faithfully via computer generated effects. The results are wondrous to behold. Yes, the Na’vi don’t really exist, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make me wonder, if only for a second, if James Cameron actually discovered Pandora and is really showing us documentary footage. There is a richness and a texture to the visuals that I, as a fan of these types of films that involve fantastic creatures and monsters, can only love.
Things don’t merely long stunning when the story settles down to develop Sully’s discovery of the Na’vi culture, no sir. This is also an action film, and let me reassure the readers that, even though Cameron hadn’t flexed his action-man muscles in over a decade, the action sequences are both captivating and thrilling. Actually, they are also one more thing: epic. Some of the battles and violent encounters that occur in the final third of the film are on a mammoth-like scale which I hadn’t seen in some time in a film. The filmmakers clearly wanted to Avatar to be not only a story of reconciliation, redemption and discovery, but also feature some seriously bad ass, off the hook shit. A perfect example of this is when Colonel Quaritch and sully square in the final battle of the movie. There are some things that really don’t need to happen (such as Quaritch using a giant blade to hack around instead of guns), but they do because they make the action all that more intense.
With all this praise, what has prompted me to award the film with only a B score? Now comes into play the second way to discuss Avatar: what is it like as a story? This is less about the experience and more about what the viewer gets in terms of plotting and character development. I return to the notion that James Cameron advertised that fact that work on the script had begun over 10 years before the film hit the silver screen. That in of itself is not an issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. However, and I find it disappointing that what follows is the only conclusion I could arrive at, the script is pretty uninspired. The story of paraplegic re-discovering life through an avatar as well as learning to appreciate and respect what he has been taught to hate and fear is a good story, that part isn’t the problem. The problem is that is an idea for a story. One has to develop characters and more intricate episodes within that idea in order to tell an adventure that not only has a beginning, middle and end, but that can also retain the viewer’s interest and attention. This is where Cameron fails with the film. Seeing Sigourney in a big film again was nice (and she gives a decent performance), and Zöe Saldana is very impressive as Neytiri despite the fact that we don’t actually ever see her real face. Even Stephen Lang has a presence about him in the film that is hard to deny. That being said, everything, literally everything in the movie is predictable and by the numbers. In fact, not only was I correctly guessing how certain hurdles would be resolved, but I was also correctly guessing what characters would do next in order to resolves those hurdles. There wasn’t a single surprise in the movie. Surprise probably isn’t the correct word because I don’t ask to be surprised when I watch a film. A film that lacks originality does not consist of an automatic failure in my book (and I should caution readers that I do not consider Avatar to be an automatic failure), but I will grow a least a little bit frustrated if I get easily predict every single little thing that is going to happen next story-wise. More importantly, and on a more basic level of film discussion, if I am actively guessing what will happen next because I find it easy, then it means that I am not wholly invested in the story. I know I am getting into semantics, but I am trying to make myself as clear as I possibly can. There’s guessing (‘Gosh, what will happen next?!? Maybe...’) and then there’s guessing (‘Oh, he’ll probably just xyz...bingo!). I was doing the latter while watching Avatar.
The actors are certainly not at fault, not even Sam Worthington (an actor who seems to have earned the scorn of plenty around the internet), who I think gives an okay performance, both with and without the cg makeup. A couple, such as Weaver and Saldana, give legitimately good performances. I think the actors do the job Cameron asks of them, which where the issues inherently being. The problem is in the material they are working with and with what exactly Cameron is asking of them. I’m an actors and actresses kind of film lover, but there are moments when not even good acting is going to keep me from getting a bit restless. I know full well that this criticism has been mentioned countless times across the internet already I honestly loath caving in the popular consensus, but... damn, this is what you wrote in 10 years, Cameron? Really!?! If the script had been cooked in a couple of weeks or a month, then I truthfully wouldn’t mind, but don’t go telling the world that you’ve spent 10 years on a story that is as predictable as watching ice melt on a hot summer day. Please, just don’t.
Good gracious, I given in to the one thing I vowed never to do as an internet blogger: ranting. I hope readers will forgive me for subjecting you to that most uninspired of film criticism methods. Huh, fancy that, I made use of a lazy criticism method to discuss a lazy scri- no, that’s enough! More earnestly however, as I left the theatre room back in December and, more recently, as I ejected the Blu-ray disc from the player, I felt that overall I had had a good time watching the film. Everything about the sights and sounds of Avatar works on a terrific level, the actors involved pull their fair share of the load and, as I’ve already touched upon, the idea behind the story is a good one. It really is the evolution of the plot that leaves me wanting for so much more. Despite my strong negative feelings towards some aspects of the film, Avatar is a B I would more than gladly recommend to anyone looking for a decent movie watching experience. The potential was there for so much more, and while it never reaches those heights I wanted it so badly to touch, it is still a fine movie.