Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in Avatar

Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Cameron’s Avatar comes with high expectations. We’ve been told we will be transported to another world as technology that didn’t exist when Cameron first envisioned this story 15 years ago has now made it possible for the far off planet of Pandora to become a reality. To that end, I can tell you here and now Pandora has become a reality. Avatar is unequivocally the most visually appealing film I have ever seen. That said, the plot is a corny potpourri of politics and tree-hugging disguised as a romantic, action epic. Fortunately, if you forget about trying to decipher Cameron’s larger worldview and give in to the world he’s created and the romance at Avatar‘s core, you’ll find it’s impossible not to have a lot of fun with what is the grandest and all-inclusive blockbuster to hit theaters in a long time.

Set in 2154, Avatar takes place on Pandora, an Earthlike planet light years away from our solar system. The human’s reason for being there is Unobtainium, a mineral that will solve Earth’s energy crisis, a crisis we are led to believe is destroying Earth’s atmosphere, an idea that plays squarely into Avatar‘s overall environmental theme as the humans prepare to repeat past earthly offenses on Pandora, a lush menagerie or otherworldly creatures and plant life that plays home to the indigenous Na’vi.

While Unobtainium draws comparisons to America’s addiction to oil, the Na’vi draw obvious comparisons to Native Americans as we become most familiar with the Omaticaya clan, their religious beliefs and their connection with the planet and all manner of species inhabiting it. As Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans, a group of scientists have created the Avatar Program, which links the human mind to that of a genetically engineered biological body of the Na’vi allowing humans to freely roam the environment.

Enter Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, a paraplegic marine who enters the Avatar Program under unfortunate circumstances. Jake quickly earns the trust of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na’vi female, and this trust will be put to the test as he learns to respect the Na’vi, but all the while has been feeding vital information to the humans making for the film’s clichéd and classic confrontation. However, I’m willing to forgive this aspect as both Worthington and Saldana create a truly believable romance, making the audience forget all about the fact we are watching CGI blue aliens fall in love. There is emotion in their eyes and compassion and conviction in their dialogue allowing for the hybrid of CGI and human performance to become entirely believable.

Saldana embraces the technology and allows her performance to transcend her character’s unfamiliar appearance. It is the one piece of acting this film falls back on time and time again and there wasn’t a moment I didn’t connect with the emotion coming from her character. This comes as a result of both a powerful performance and CG technology that creates a wholly realistic world. In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you what was real and what was CGI in this film outside of the fact we are looking at nonexistent flora and fauna.

As for the supporting performances, Sigourney Weaver plays Grace, a scientist in charge of the Avatar Program and she brings an excellent level of love for the alien land and its natives as well as enough bite to her bark, making her a character you stand up and take notice of. Giovanni Ribisi plays the nasty corporate figure who occasionally muddles the proceedings with smarmy and oftentimes overbearing dialogue at a consistent clip. His ignorance is so on the nose and such a flat-out indictment of capitalism I wish Cameron would have dialed it back a notch (or five) alleviating some of the overt commentary he intends to make sure hits home with the audience. We get it, can we please get back to the story?

One character that also weighed on me as the film went on was Stephen Lang as Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch. Miles is a hard ass and you are reminded of it over, and over, and over, and over again. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He’s got scars on his face to prove he’s tough and if you still don’t believe it he’ll just run outside and play “Who can breathe the toxic air longer?” game to prove it. It’s a clichéd and predictable character, but I have a feeling over the course of repeated viewings he’s someone you come to love to hate as opposed to being annoyed by. That verdict is still out though.

Overall this is an epic that must be seen in theaters. It never feels as if you have been sitting in the theater for over two-and-a-half hours and the 3-D is some of the best I have seen as it simply exists as part of the experience and not a crutch or gimmick to fall back on. That said, I think this film will play just as well in 2-D, but that’s something I will have to wait for home video to decide.

Avatar isn’t perfect as its story is certainly rough around the edges, but this is simply a means to appeal to all audiences and that it does. As a blockbuster action epic it has everything, for everyone regardless of age or gender. I can imagine some folks on the right not particularly enjoying the message of this film, but that’s not for me to decide. Decide for yourself, it’s a film I plan on seeing again and would bet you will too.



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