I currently have a wager set up with my boss. The wager is that within the time of one month, James Cameron’s Avatar will make $200 million domestically. I am not sure whether or not that is obtainable, as of this writing, but what I do know is that nobody has really talked about the movie much since the whisperings of James Cameron’s opus were started earlier this year. All I’ve heard is that the movie costs this much to make, the special effects are so amazing, the technical specs are blah-blah. But the bottom line is this; it’s not AMAZING unless it does its job and tells us a good story. The specs are just a way to tell the story, but if it isn’t very good, then the effects shouldn’t matter, but now we’ve gotten away from that into this area where effects trump any other aspect of a mainstream movie in the discussion. Avatar is a movie with truly amazing effects, and it really does have the potential to revolutionize the way people make CG effects. And luckily, the movie has enough archetypal strength to carry some genuine emotional power at times, because it’s honestly, on its own as a story, fairly derivative.
Avatar is essentially The Last Samurai with aliens. A wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully, living in the extremely far off year of 2154, is given a chance to replace his twin brother, a scientist, on the far away world of Pandora where he was to research the alien life there, an alien race known as the Na’vi. He is given an Avatar, a creature made with Na’vi DNA that has mental uplinks so a human might control it via a VR interface, and is sent to help the human-Na’vi relations. The humans are on Pandora to mine a precious metal that is worth millions back on Earth, and while they don’t want to eradicate the Na’vi to get it, they’ll do what it takes to get what they want. But they’re trying the talking approach first, though it hasn’t produced results. So Jake is approached by one of the mercenaries contracted by the company mining the mineral with a simple proposition; infiltrate the Na’vi, learn their ways, gain their trust, and learn their defenses at the heart of the forest, and the mercenary will get him his legs back. Jake is torn between the Na’vi, a people he is learning to love and understand, and the ability to walk again, to be self-sufficient. As his Avatar gains more respect in the Na’vi tribe, and he falls more and more in love with the Chief’s daughter, the responsibility he has shouldered in the human world to bring war upon them becomes too much to bear. What will Jake decide to do about the home he has found light years away from his old world? Can he save his new-found people amongst the forest? Or are they doomed to make way for a strip mine?
Avatar’s stats are self-evident, and they have been propagated all over the internet. Let’s just say a LOT of work has gone into this film, and director James Cameron has spent a good chunk of his life making this come to life. I am very serious when I say that the special effects in this film represent a change in the course of how movies will look in the future. Nearly this entire movie is created from completely new CG concepts, and the realism for something so fantastic is really and truly remarkable. There are animals and plants and places that feel real, that breathe with a life of their own. It seems like the sky is the limit now, like anything could be possible all over again. The ceiling has been shattered again with living, kinetic CG characters that exist in an immersive world all their own, and many people will be spending many years trying to achieve what has been created here. There are flying creatures here called ikran (they look like pterodactyls but more alien) that had me rubbing my eyes in amazement from their sheer technical and aesthetic beauty. Hopefully, whoever is next, they will come up with something that is a little more robust and strikingly original from a story standpoint as well, rather than from just a visual standpoint.
Why do I say that? Well, because it’s not something you’ve never seen before. In fact, you’ve probably seen it quite a few times before. It’s 160 minutes of a man going native. That’s it. There’s a forest of cool shit walking around, but the main story is, verbatim, a mix of The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves dashed with a sprinkle of astro dust and shot in digital 3-D. The script is derived from archetypes as broad and as universal as Joseph Campbell’s wet dreams, not to mention the situations are completely and utterly stock. I won’t say that it’s terrible. The situations presented give us an almost reactionary response that we cannot avoid, and I could feel myself becoming attached to the Na’vi and their world a number of times. But not once did I really feel the characters, their plight, or any of the dramatic scenarios they set up. The only thing that I enjoyed was the emotional attachment the audience gains for the forest, the poignant remembrance of a life of freedom we have traded away for modern convenience, because at times I cannot help but feel that this world would be much simpler if we were closer to the bosom of the earth, even if it meant the end of modern life and the easy prosperity of men and their long-winded lives.
The acting is good, but it’s really not fair. No matter how cut Sam Worthington is, he can’t really hold a candle to how cool his Avatar looks. For what it’s worth, though, he is a damn fine up-and-comer, and I think his turn here as Jake was enjoyable. I especially love his strength in the face of his disability; what a trooper! Stephen Lang is the villainous mercenary trying to kill the rain forest and the Na’vi. He is unflinchingly evil here, and more than that he is uncaring and battle-hardened, which seems to be an irreversible condition in the face of all the carnage he causes. Sigourney Weaver throws Cameron a bone and gets in here as a scientist helping Jake realize his potential as an Avatar controller. She is a hard-ass, but Weaver adds a sweetness that comes out as she controls her own Avatar, a nice touch that adds to the experience. And Zoe Saldana, while never really acting, lends her voice to the Na’vi chief’s daughter, Jake’s love interest, who shows him the ways of her people. She has a lot of character that comes out in her strong but intensely feminine voice that really makes the character come to life. She has to speak another language a lot, and she also does a different voice than her speaking voice, which I L-O-V-E.
Odds are, you’ve already seen Avatar, so I don’t know why I’m reviewing it, honestly. Apparently it is the 7th highest grossing opening of all time as of today, and the numbers are only growing. But if you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll just say that you might not get what you’re expecting. It’s a decent movie that is jacked-up by the aesthetic. If the budget were quartered, I don’t think Avatar would be seeing the attention it’s receiving. But the numbers are what people are talking about nowadays, for good or bad, and this movie is certainly up there as far as that game goes. It’s a huge movie with what seems to be the future of CG as a bolster, and while that’s certainly nothing to snub one’s nose at, let’s not put this on more of a pedestal than it needs to be just because the price tag is more than we could afford in out lifetimes. I give Avatar 7 sprinkles of astro dust out of 10.
Tomorrow I promise to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai! Until then!!!