Let me preface this review of Avatar with the fact that I never had any desire of even seeing the film in the first place. To me, the film represented the death of traditional cinema, and its box-office success has every producer in Hollywood scurrying to make their own 3-D blockbuster, while studios are pushing to implement the process into films whether they need it or not. Where 3-D was once the stuff of b-movie schlock and kid’s CGI flicks, Avatar legitimized the format in the eyes of Hollywood bean counters and, because of that, the immediate future of the industry looks to be one in three dimensions, even spilling over into our living rooms in the guise of pricey 3-D television sets, Blu-ray players, and all manner of image polarizing bric-a-brac. It is for that reason alone that I hate everything Avatar stands for, and it’s what makes it so damned difficult to admit that it’s a pretty fucking good movie.
James Cameron is nothing if not imaginative, and Avatar is brimming with fresh concepts and twists on well-trodden sci-fi conventions and plot devices that ably mask the fact that, at its very core, the film is nothing more than yet another meditation on David and Goliath, buoyed by a trendy eco-friendly message and eye-popping visuals. In this iteration, Goliath is the RDA Corporation; a massive mining outfit with its own private army of mercenaries known as Sec-Ops, and David is represented by the Na’vi; a race of technologically impaired, ten foot tall humanoids with a deeply spiritual relationship with the flora and fauna of their homeworld, Pandora.
RDA has spent several years mining Pandora for an extremely valuable mineral (groan-inducingly) known as Unobtainium, but the Na’vi have been less than welcoming, and, as RDA’s operation expands, so does Na’vi resistance. In an effort to placate the natives, the corporation has extended the proverbial olive branch in the guise schools, and offers to relocate and “humanize” the natives, but none of this has had the desired effect, leaving it up to Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her “Avatar” project - a multi-billion dollar experiment in which humans “pilot” genetically engineered Na’vi bodies with the hope being that the Na’vi will be more willing to negotiate with “one of their own”. Amongst the recruits for Augustine’s project is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound marine whose recently deceased twin brother (a scientist who trained for years for the project) was originally designated to pilot one of the avatars. Being that Jake shares his brother’s genetic makeup, RDA decides to give him the job to save a few hundred million dollars (the cost of creating a new avatar for a new candidate). Augustine is vehemently opposed to having a “grunt” on her team, but RDA Adminstrator, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) feels Sully would be a good fit and could provide security for Augustine and her other recruit, Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore).
It doesn’t take long for Sully to become acclimated to his new body, and, in a particularly touching scene, we watch as he revels in once again having the use of his legs. Soon, Sully, Spellman, and Augustine are ferried off on their first mission, but, when they’re attacked by one of the moon’s many feral beasties, they get separated, and Sully is forced to spend the night alone in the Pandoran jungle. It’s here that he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), princess of the Omaticaya clan, and, as evidenced by her grasp of the English language, a graduate of Augustine’s ill-fated school. She rescues Sully from a pack of dog-like creatures, but, knowing what Sully is (the Na’vi call the Avatars “dreamwalkers”) is about to leave him to his own devices when she is given a sign by the Na’vi god, Eywa. She decides to take him back to her village, where Sully meets Neytiri’s mother, the clan’s spiritual leader, Mo’at (C.C.H. Pounder). Mo’at determines that it is Eywa’s wish that Sully be indoctrinated into their tribe, and assigns Neytiri the task of teaching him all about the Na’vi and their ways.
When Sully returns to his own body later that night, Augustine is delighted to hear that the Na’vi have accepted him, but it’s not just good news to her. The Sec-Ops commander, Colonel Miles Quaritch (a fantastic Stephen Lang), sees this as an opportunity to expose the weaknesses of the Na’vi, and offers Sully a chance to get his real legs back in exchange for doing some recon work to help his men defeat the Na’vi in the event that diplomacy fails. Sully readily accepts, but, as he learns more about the Na’vi (and begins to develop feelings for Neytiri) he begins to question where his loyalty lies.
I’ve heard Avatar jokingly referred to as “Dances with Smurfs” (it was even the title of an Avatar-centric episode of South Park), and the comparisons aren’t unfounded. Sully and Dances with Wolves’ John Dunbar are very similar characters – both being disillusioned soldiers who’ve been chewed up and spat out by their the military machine , while the Na’vi, with their quaint, peaceful, and spiritual existence, make a suitable substitute for the Sioux. Just as in Dances with Wolves, Sully becomes infatuated with the life and customs of the Na’vi, and goes on to fight against his own kind in order to protect the ways of his newly adopted brethren. While I can’t attest as to whether or not Cameron did this knowingly or if it’s just a coincidence, I will say that its commonplace for science fiction writers to borrow thematic elements from other genres and tweak it for their own, so the similarities didn’t bother. Quite to the contrary, I found it all rather fascinating and engrossing in its use here, and, as coupled with Worthington and Saldana’s wonderfully emotive vocal performances (in addition to the amazing motion capture CGI), actually quite moving. It’s a given that Avatar would be a visual feast, but it also boasts some fine performances, especially Lang’s scene-stealing, not-quite-as-evil-as-he-is-dedicated Quaritch, and a nicely understated turn by Ribisi as corporate schill, Selfridge.
One of my favorite things about Avatar has nothing to do with Avatar at all, but, rather, one of Cameron’s earlier films. As I sat there watching Quaritch and his Sec-Ops guys go to work, I couldn’t help but think of the Colonial Marines from Cameron’s “Aliens.” While the tech’s a bit more impressive, it’s pretty obvious that these mercenaries are cut from the same cloth, with everything from the weapons and vehicles to Michelle Rodriguez’s Vasquez-like Trudy Chacon ringing familiar.
Avatar comes to Blu-ray in a no-frills Blu-ray/DVD combo set, and, while there’s nary an extra to speak of, the film looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, as one would expect. Still, not having seen the film in the theater, I wasn’t prepared for just how breathtaking the visuals would be, and, even on a modestly-sized 47 inch television set, the image looks huge and majestic, with unbelievable depth, detail, and dimensionality. It’s obvious that Fox has held back all of the good stuff for the inevitable 3-D release later this year, but I still have to consider this one a must-own as this is very definition of “reference quality” material, and a film I’m sure fans will revisit several times before the special edition hits the shelves.
To paraphrase Z.Z. Top, I didn’t want to love Avatar, but I did. It’s a hugely imaginative, jaw-dropping visual treat, as well as an entertaining and absorbing piece of sci-fi that truly does live up to the hype. Highest possible recommendation.