Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar Film Review

Oh boy, those Fox News right-wingers' heads are going to explode when they see sister 20th Century Fox's movie Avatar. Director and writer James Cameron has created a science fiction film that is an allegory to our destruction of the rain forests and the white man's treatment of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. If you think conservative objections to Wall-E (2008) as liberal propaganda were crazy, what are they going to think about Avatar's in your face environmentalism? If Glenn Beck wasn't on Fox News, he'd probably do a whole show on Avatar's green views as more liberal socialism. Then he'd connect it all to Obama.

James Cameron's film is set in the future, at a moon called Pandora, which orbits a gas giant light years away from Earth. A corporation has found an energy source on the moon. The company has employed scientists and marines for security to mine the planet. Unfortunately, humans cannot breathe the atmosphere. There are sentient, intelligent life forms. The moon is inhabited by a catlike humanoid race called the Na'vi. The Na'vi are ten feet tall,blue with elf like ears and tails. They have long hair which ends in a ponytail. The ends of that tail allow them to interface with the living creatures of Pandora.

Initially, the humans interaction with the Na'vi is peaceful. But it becomes more strident as the corporation moves ahead with more mining operations. A plan to negotiate with the Na'vi is hatched with scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) leading a program to mate human consciousness with a human-Na'vi cloned body, a physical avatar that looks like a Na'vi. Grace has already had contact with the Na'vi as an avatar, learning their language and teaching their children.

When one of the humans tasked to "drive" an avatar dies, the corporation asks his twin brother Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to take his place. Jake is also ideal as he is a marine though one who is paralyzed from the waist. See, now marine Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) can order Jake to spy on the Na'vi while also working with Grace to seek peaceful cooperation with them. Jake's first foray in his avatar delights him since he can now run. But Quaritch offers Jake the real thing. He tells Jake if he spys on the Na'vi, he will get the operation to restore his legs since he can't afford the operation. Jake must be on the Republican health care plan. But I digress.

During a scouting mission, Jake in his avatar is separated from his group. He is forced to live in the jungle while waiting for rescue. It is here that he is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) from a pack of dog like predators. Jake is taken to her tribe, the Omayticaya. They decide to educate him in the their ways. Jake is now living a dual life. When awake as a Na'vi, he experiences their world, the beautiful but strange life forms, and their ancient culture which emphasizes respect for all life. When he sleeps, he re-enters the grey and artificial world of humanity.

Okay, here is where Sarah Palin would want to get her shotgun and blow a hole in the film. The Omayticaya live in a giant tree. They are one with nature. They hunt with bows and arrows. Yes, they are tree huggers. Unfortunately, for them their tree is also on top of a very large deposit of the energy source that the humans want to mine. It becomes imperative for the corporation to move the Na'vi from the tree. If they don't move, the company will call in the Marines to force them out. Jake becomes conflicted when he starts to fall in love with Neytiri. With the impending battle coming, Jake must choose sides.

This should sound all too familiar. I can name four films that echo the same plot. Dances With Wolves (1990) Avatar even stars Wes Studi from that movie. The Emerald Forest (1985) FernGully (1992) Even Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) has ideas shared with Avatar. That's one of the problems with this movie. You know what is going to happen once Jake meets Neytiri. You'll be able to guess which side Jake is going to support. While this movie boasts its 3d technology, some of its characters lack depth. The bad guys like Quaritch have no motivation except that they are bad.

What about the effects? The CGI visuals are astounding. Pandora is a a strange new world with exotic life forms. The Na'vi are well depicted too. Though, it's difficult to animate humanoid life forms without some stiffness. Cameron would have done better if he used a mixture of human and CGI actors to portray them instead of relying primarily on computer animation. The flying sequences, and I mean the flying sequences with the giant dragon creatures are just gorgeous. But here's the twelve dollar question. Do you have to see this film in 3D? The answer is no. There's a cliche in 3D movies where the director will have a spear coming right at you, causing you to duck. Cheesy, but effective. Cameron avoids those money shots. While you get some depth, it's not worth the extra bucks to experience it. There's no moment where you feel part of the movie. Maybe, it will take 24th century technology like Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodecks to fully get you immersed in the story. But for right now, filmmakers should stick to two dimensions.

Avatar is a heartfelt, message driven science fiction film. Its weaknesses shouldn't keep you from seeing it. The grade is B.

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