First the Review, and then I’ll explain my new Movie Review system and why I’m switching over to it.
James Cameron’s Masterpiece Delivers.
December 20, 2009 – I walked out of the movie theater in a daze. I felt like I had been taken by the collar of my shirt and drug through the screen into a new and vibrant world. Let me get my ridiculous gushing out of the way right now by saying that the film is utterly fabulous, a historic benchmark for motion-capture technology and CGI, and one of my new all-time favorite films.
James Cameron took me on an adventure to a distant moon named Pandora, and I can’t thank him enough. I haven’t even seen it in 3-D yet.
Oh. I will. So help me.
Now that my pure adoration is somewhat satiated, let’s move on to the basics. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a crippled marine who takes his scientist brother’s place in the Avatar program on Pandora when his brother is killed by a mugger on Earth. Jake is swiftly brought up to speed and trying out his new Avatar, an alien body grown with human DNA that can be controlled across vast distances. He meets Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, who is a sort of Jane Goodall figure in the film, a botanist and, in a way, an early diplomat or missionary(though that isn’t the right word) to the Na’vi, an indigenous race of tall, blue, cat-like people. She is also the lead scientist on the Avatar project, and she acts like an early mentor to him.
He also meets Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang. Quaritch is pleased to find an ex-marine in the Avatar program and offers Jake the chance to regain his legs with an expensive surgery if he will use his place in the Avatar program to spy on the Na’vi in his encounters with them. Jake quickly agrees.
Jake, Dr. Grace and Norm Spellman, another scientist in the Avatar program, go out into the wilds of Pandora only to be soon separated by a vicious predator creature. Jake is rescued by Neytiri, one of the Na’vi, and the chief’s daughter, played by Zoë Saldaña.
What follows is a very familiar story, along the lines of Disney’s Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and the Last Samurai. The familiarity with this plot-line is the most often cited criticism of the film. Let me lay the structure of my review out to you for a minute. Now that we’ve got the pleasantries out of the way, I’m going to talk about my impressions of the film, but then, near the end, I’m going to switch over and close with my own take on this particular criticism of the film, because I feel the need to address it specifically. Now then…
The dialogue, I’ll be honest, is not as smooth and natural as it could be in a few places. Anyone with a writer’s sense can clearly hear when the scriptwriter is speaking through the characters to explain the setup of the movie. The beginning of the film is particularly rife with exposition, especially during one early scene between Weaver’s character and Parker Selfridge, a cold-hearted corporate administer played by Giovanni Ribisi which sets up the company’s desire to oust the natives for the rich resources below their lands.
That is my only qualm with the film, and to be honest, it’s really just nit-picking, especially when the actors manage to do such a great job with those lines anyway. And let me say that the acting job cannot be understated. I became a fan of Sam Worthington when I saw Terminator Salvation where his was the only character that felt real to me, and he lives up to all of the potential I saw then, in Avatar. He takes what would otherwise be a bland role, as a generic ex-marine nice-guy and turns him into a real character. Zoë Saldaña deserves an award for her excellent work in turning a completely computer generated character into someone real, that you can completely believe in and feel for. Lang is the perfect bad guy. His character is made to be pure evil and Lang does an excellent job of making him every bit as menacing as he should be. This is especially commendable when the very worst lines of dialogue in the movie are put into his mouth. Weaver does an excellent job as usual, as does the rest of the cast. This is a well-acted film.
A lot has been said and will be said about the special effects in the film. I do not know how much I can add to the conversation other than saying that the way the Computer Generated world became real to me has surpassed every other film I have ever seen in terms of quality. I hate to say it, but it will be painful to go back and watch certain scenes in the Lord of the Rings, and as good as Gollum was in those films, it is nothing compared to this. As for the gorgeous scenery, James Cameron has been watching the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Blue-Ray, I think. He has learned well.
The overarching themes of the movie are classic ones. There is the struggle between technology and nature, there is the theme of anti-colonization and anti-imperialism, and yes, there is a subdued undercurrent of commentary on America’s recent foreign policy. The film hits all of these notes pitch-perfect, and I swear I became a complete tree-hugger during several of the tragic scenes of destruction of Pandora. For those of you who watch the film, you probably know the moment I’m thinking of. Even many of the bad guys stopped in a sort of depressed silence in that moment. Cameron did an excellent job of imbuing each scene with horror and heartache.
A number of people have criticized the film for being clichéd, or predictable. In fact, even those who ultimately enjoyed Avatar often take issue with this facet of the film. I’d like to offer my perspective as a defense of Avatar’s story.
There are stories that resonate with certain time periods. Those are stories that tap into the realities of specific circumstances, places, people and cultures, giving people a needed insight into an issue of the moment, or to serve as an examination of some aspect of life from a new angle. And then there are some stories that are handed down from generation to generation, mouths to ears, pages to eyes, screens to audiences. Those stories are archetypal, speaking to many times, places, people and cultures. They are the lessons of history and experience that are shared, not because they are new and innovative, but because they are true with real lessons to give to every generation.
Avatar is the latter of these two kinds of stories. It is a tale that, while familiar to those of us who grew up with Pocahontas, is new to the younger generation in general. They need to learn these lessons, and absorb these archetypes, and Avatar speaks to that in a fantastic way, that will catch the eyes of a generation being weaned on television screens and videogames.
Avatar needed a familiar story, with familiar characters, to make Pandora a more believable place, and the familiar characters and story needed Pandora to remain relevant to new, digital generations. James Cameron is not stealing old stories. He is not robbing the creative graves of filmmakers past (just looking at Pandora should be enough to silence critics who call Cameron not creative.) James Cameron is following a tradition. He is following a tradition as old as recorded history and beyond. He is passing the lessons and the archetypes of the past down to the present.
That is why Avatar is, as far as I’m concerned, unjustly criticized by many film critics.
In closing, Avatar is a mature version of a classic Disney movie done in live action. A veritable fairy-tale, an archetypal wonder, that will take root and grow in the hearts of those who are open to its themes. With beautiful music, majestic scenery, real, if familiar, characters and a solid storyline, Avatar is a new classic. Cameron was right. Do yourself a favor and go see this film.
How do you like my pretty new Star System? eh?
Oh, know, it’s not exactly breaking new ground when it comes to the world of movies, but I think going over to the star system was necessary. Many of you who’ve been following along with my past reviews on this and other sites are probably used to my 100 point scale. I’ve decided to move away from that because that point scales are better for telling people if they should buy a product, and it is very complicated when trying to stack films against one another to tell exactly what one point means when compared to another. why would one movie get a 7.4 and another a 7.5? Too tough to say. So I’m moving to the chart you see below, along with 1/2 stars in between, when a film just doesn’t sit well in a full star slot. I hope you all like it!
– Edward L. Cheever II~