Avatar: A brunch movie review Part I
James Cameron's Avatar
The best of science fiction causes us to look back on ourselves even as it takes us to far off stars, future times, and alternate universes. It explores the common themes of humanity in the best traditions of mythology. Avatar is part of that long tradition. Cameron’s return to fantasy and action cinema is not light and he has pulled out all the stops in an effort to draw us into one of the most extraordinary worlds ever brought to the screen.
Avatar tells an old, and not particularly original story, but it tells it well and with passion and also because it intends to tell this old story we the viewers do not mind. I at least didn’t mind. If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel you will already know the general outline of the story, as it has played out several times in our own neck of the galactic woods, on our own world altogether too often. The premise, if the previews have not entirely explained the thrust of the story, is this. An indigenous population of hunter gatherers has met a technologically superior population, and the former find themselves on land exceedingly valuable to the latter. Humans call the world Pandora and on it, there exists Unobtainium which sells for millions per kilo. What it is used for we are never really told. What we do know is that there is a corporation with resources, and mandates, and men and women with guns that want to acquire the element. The element's uses and worth are insignificant to toll the Corporation is willing to inflict to get Unobtainium. So James Cameron wisely doesn't waste any exposition on an explanation. All the story requires is the element's worth, and group able and willing to acquire this element by whatever means necessary. Above all this is the story of the Na'vi who live on the land, and it also the story of their world, Pandora.
The corporation funds a lab, run by well meaning scientists, to learn about the Na’vi. Their goals are not the same. The scientists, anthropologists, and biologists create the AVATAR program to comfortably and less obtrusively interact with the Na'vi. Here a human “driver” has his consciousness linked to a human alien hybrid body, an Avatar, that can then interact with the world of Pandora, and its native peoples. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team are simply interested in understanding the Na’vi, and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the conflict of interests between the Na’vi, and the Corporation (and I suppose addressing broader human concerns). The Corporation is interested in using the Avatar program as a source of tactical information. If there was any sincere interest in working toward a peaceful resolution with the Na’vi by the Corporation it was minimal at best.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), paraplegic veteran offered a chance to join the AVATAR program. It is through his character that we experience and “see” Pandora. To say that Jake is ideally suited for only one aspect of the AVATAR program would be to understate things. He is a Marine, and feels the pull of the military chain of command. He is swayed by the swagger Col. Miles Quaritch (played to muscle bound perfection by Stephan Lang) and by his promise to see that the corporation fixes his legs. The appeal to Sully, I suppose, is that the Colonel doesn’t see a cripple in a wheel chair, but a marine who can complete the mission. What the Colonel’s problem with the Na’vi and the planet are I leave to you the reader to assess.
I am not revealing or spoiling anything by telling you that Jake rejects the military objective and finds himself so immersed in the Na’vi and the planet Pandora that he feels more allegiance to them, and the researchers who love both than he is to the mission objectives of the Corporation and its team of mercenaries (they are not it appears active military but former soldiers simply fighting for a paycheck). And while the spectacle of the fight we all know is coming is indeed amazing in every respect, for my money, my favorite moments of this film will be Jake experiencing Pandora, its people, its flora and fauna. This must take up fully a third or more of the film. Cameron is a master story teller (even though he can be clunky with dialogue) who understands pace better than almost other crafter of action films. And here he must have been tempted to rush, to drive a relentless pace to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. Whatever the case may be, his instincts were perfect. Cameron eschews the music backed montage and takes all the time he needs. Pandora seems like a real place, feels like a real place, and Jake’s reactions to Pandora, and the Na’vi are as real, and human as you can imagine. About that I will not say more, it is surprising and genuine and best discovered by the viewer.
James Cameron has said that the film is a cross between Pochahontas and Fern Gully. That is probably fair. But it also has elements of Dances With Wolves that I don’t think he would begrudge for me pointing out. That the film functions as a critique of humanity is of course obvious. And that obviousness is probably the only serious distraction of the entire film. As such there is a minor but noticable thinness to Quaritch, and the corporation villains. Given the message (and an admirable and timely one at that) I’m not sure that it was an avoidable distraction. But maybe that is as Cameron intended. Our treatment of our own environment, and the treatment that various powerful cultures have dealt to technologically inferior cultures gnaws constantly at the viewer, even as the film stuns you with the beauty (though the portrait of nature is honest) of an alien world. Maybe gnaws is too strong a word, but the germ of the idea is there, and it will likely be with the viewer as they leave the theater and the credits roll up the screen.
James Cameron‘s Avatar is certainly one of this year’s crowning cinematic achievements. It is certainly, to date, James Cameron’s finest movie.
This is part one of an intended three part review of the film, Avatar. The second part will look at the film from the view point of an evolutionary biologist. And the third part will tackle the odd criticisms coming from the neo and theo con critics (none of which have yet seen the film though have been offering damning words of, uh...damnation).