Under Review: ‘Avatar’


A crippled marine travels to an alien moon for a research mission to help secure a rare mineral for Earth. But when he begins to question both the alien races’ nature and his own races’ intent, his loyalties begin to blur.

James Cameron…is back.

After a lengthy 13-year hiatus since 1997’s “Titanic” became the highest-grossing film of all time, Hollywood’s more notorious and fulfilled perfectionist has pulled his own ‘Prodigal Son’ routine with 2009’s high-flying (and equally anticipated) “Avatar.”

Just how anticipated?

People have been abuzz about this thing everywhere I’ve gone for the past 6 months…the industry has been so for even longer.

And why wouldn’t they be?

It’s James Cameron!

More than that…it’s James Cameron doing Sci-Fi! Just when we all thought that the success of that ‘Boat Flick’ would curb the techno-wizard responsible for bringing up an Austrian Death Machine from the future and Ripley kicking Alien Queen Ass in a power-loader…here he bounces right back with a bold new vision for his first narrative film in over a decade.

The year is 2154…four light years from Earth resides a giant tumultuous gas planet adorned with several moons. One of them is a moon called Pandora, where a broad range of beautiful landscapes and deadly creatures resides…its splendor is matched only by its danger. Calling this world home is an indigenous populace called the Na’vi…an ecologically attuned warrior race of 9 foot tall, agile, blue-skinned humanoids who live in peace. However, as with all peace it seems, it’s inevitably doomed.

Pandora is also the only known deposit of a rare ultra-magnetic mineral; Unobtanium. The recent (and quite relevant) energy crisis plaguing Earth has left our home world without oil…and this leads mankind to seek out the mineral…and they will do whatever it takes to get their greedy hands on it.

Leading the campaign is the RDA Corporation…a multi-national conglomerate specializing in the recovery and refinery of materials such as Unobtanium. Equipped with a privatized army of Marines turned hired guns, RDA has had no luck in making peace with the Na’vi…unable to gain their trust.

So ingeniously…or perhaps devilishly…RDA’s Science Division has engineered the ‘Avatar’ program.

From an established medical facility, a human’s mind and being are linked to and projected into a genetically engineered ‘Avatar,’ allowing the patient to take Na’vi form so they can breathe and function on the moon’s surface, which is toxic to humans.

The story of “Avatar” centers around Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine crippled and stuck in the confines of a wheelchair. When his twin brother, one of the patients meant to take part in the ‘Avatar’ program, is shot dead Jake decides to take his place. Given that the ‘Avatars’ have to be in sync with their human host on a genetic level, he has little choice in the matter.

Jake travels to Pandora, a proclaimed land of opportunity (a reference to our economy perhaps?) where he meets such personalities as Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a hard ass RDA Colonel obsessed with carrying out his objective of extracting the mineral and dealing with the Na’vi…and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the physician responsible for the ‘Avatar’ program.

At first, Jake is meant to use his former experience as a Marine to gain the trust of the Na’vi…as well as access into their society to start securing their removal from their lands (which just so happen to be sitting on top of the largest deposit of Unobtanium on the moon).

But Jake begins to realize that the Na’vi aren’t savages…but a beautiful race of culture and wonder. When he begins to fall in love with the Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), he questions where his loyalties lie and discovers that, in his heart, he’s one the wrong side of the conflict.

Now before I get into the thick of things I’ll be totally upfront.

I think “Avatar” is a triumph.

I walked out of the film with the same feelings dancing along my spine and in my gut that I get whenever I watch “Star Wars.” That incredible yet subtle rush that tells me ‘THIS is why movies are made and ‘THIS’ is where movies are going.

It’s true that Cameron’s involvement played a pivotal part in my anticipatory admiration of the project. Perhaps it was premature, but I was already loving the film before I even walked in.

But that doesn’t matter now. Not after seeing just what the hell it was Jim had been up to all this time.

It might not sound like it, but I AM trying to set aside my being a Cameron admirer when I say this.

The world of “Avatar” is so meticulously detailed and incredibly vibrant that, no matter how skeptical you might be prior to seeing it, you are instantly infatuated and eventually captivated.

For essentially being a nearly 3 hour long visual effect, you believe in Pandora…you’re intrigued by it. Your eye is all over that canvas that Cameron and his team have worked on and you dare not look away.

I’m not even sure if I blinked during the film, I can’t remember…my point is simply this…

I walked into “Avatar” wanting to love “Avatar” because of Jim Cameron.

I walked out of “Avatar” loving “Avatar” because of “Avatar.”

Easily among my favorites of the year.

I’m well aware, however, that many people might not agree with me…and that’s fine; they’re just as entitled to an opinion.

Given both the time its taken been now and “Titanic” and the time between now and when Cameron was in the thick of Sci-Fi (at least theatrically), skepticism has been just as abundant as anticipation. People have said just about everything they can to keep the spirit of the film down.
1: It has no story and it’s only about effects.
2: The Blue People look like Smurfs.
3: This looks dumb.
4: It rips off “Dances with Wolves.”
5: This’ll only do 175 million in the U.S. period.

Again they’re entitled…but let’s go back to one.
1: Of course it has a story…and (shocker) a message to. Now are both original? Not really…more on that with 4.
2: This one’s just stupid. Just because they’re blue, the Na’vi are compared to Smurfs? That logic’s almost as ridiculous as when FOX took Nightcrawler out of “X-Men 3” just on the basis that he was blue…saying they didn’t want to confuse the audience with both him and equally blue Beast in the film (um…weren’t Nightcrawler and Mystique both in “X2” sans blue-confusion?). I’ll break it all down for you. The Smurfs are pint-sized cartoons…and the Na’vi AREN’T Smurfs.
3: Without an argument, not worth the time.
4: Okay yes, there are striking similarities between the film’s plot and the plot from the Kevin Costner picture. But holding that against ‘Avatar’ is ignorant and foolish. It’s like condemning “Star Wars” because of its utilization of mythic archetypes, samurai films and Saturday movie serials. Art inspires Art…what’s created now is a relfection of what was created then. This concept is nothing new and the fact that people are still trying to argue with his has more than outworn its welcome. Besides, just like “Star Wars,” “Avatar” might’ve taken inspiration…but it’s spun it through a totally different, sci-fi blockbuster vernacular that, I have to say, looks more intriguing than “Dances with Wolves” ever did.
5: It’s obvious this won’t do “Titanic” numbers…it won’t even do “Dark Knight” numbers. But to think it won’t break $200 mil in its entire domestic run? That’s just naivety, plain and simple. I won’t presume to know what its numbers will be, but c’mon…it HAS to do better than that.

I think the sign of a great filmmaker is when everyone at large wants to see them fail. There’s been resentment and disdain for Cameron ever since the success of “Titanic” and I’m not quite sure what that’s all about. But maybe it’s a good thing…because it challenges Jim to continue bringing his ‘A’ game to the table. After all people were skeptical (AND cynical) about “Titanic” and, while I do find it to be a tad overrated, we all know how that ended up turning out.

Now as I stated, “Avatar” has both a story and a message.

The story is one of self-discovery…of fighting for what’s right and just…of becoming a more admirable version of yourself.

The message is one of love and respect…both of the environment around you and of the unknown. The culture you don’t understand or the way of life different to your own…these aren’t things to fear but, rather, to embrace.

Again are these that new? No, not really.

But you’re missing the point.

It’s not how fresh the message is…it’s how significant it is…

And in the troubling times we’ve been facing of late, with our real energy crisis and economic decline…messages of unity and ecological harmony are more important now than ever.

And if we can get that message to people in a broad, sci-fi blockbuster film…I think that’s a very good thing.

THAT’s what, aside from technological advancement, makes “Avatar” important.

On the flip side of this eco-tranquility that the Na’vi represent, you’ve got Quaritch and his trigger happy squad…a deadpan love letter to the Bush Administration (both of them, really).

Now here’s the intriguing thing…having the RDA defeated and taken off of Pandora is another message.

And that’s the message of forging change.

We all know that’s what Obama fed us…but I’m not talking about the thoughtful yet hollow words of a President-Elect.

I’m talking about real change…the kind that can only be provoked by the people.

The Na’vi rose up, banded together, fought for and demanded that change.

Doesn’t that make you wanna get off your ass and do it to?

I’m not saying you need to start a large scale assault or anything, but this paired with the aforementioned message makes for very compelling and powerful notions.

Quite a lot for a film that apparently has no story huh?

Another neat concept is one that Jim dabbles in regularly in his work; that of his social statement that the meek or seemingly insignificant are in fact quite so.

With “The Terminator” you’ve got the mother of the savior of the entire human race…and out of the billions on the planet, it’s a college student/waitress living in LA who can’t even balance a checkbook.

Then there’s “Aliens” where Burke constantly berates the Colonial Marines; calling them ‘grunts’ incapable of making snap judgments concerning Weyland-Yutani’s multi-million dollar Atmosphere Processor installations.

The most obvious example of this is “Titanic” which, for reasons both thematic and historical, literally splits the characters between the three class on the ship. While First Class waits comfortably for the lifeboats after the Iceberg has hit the Third Class is caged like animals, desperate for the survival they’re just as entitled to as the water level continues to rise. Little do they know that the bond between Jack and Rose not only perverts that established social dichotomy…but said bond is obviously the most significant aspect in the picture.

This idea carries forward to “Avatar” in perhaps the most straight forward example with the RDA ignorantly believing the Na’vi to be nothing more than savages…when, in truth, they’re consciousness and way of life are more heightened and aware and beautiful than humanities’ crudeness could ever fathom.

Cameron is clearly always in favor of the proverbial underdog and that’s a practice I can certainly get behind and enjoy.

The cast, at the end of the day, isn’t among Cameron’s strongest (that honor, like so many others, falls to “Titanic”) but perhaps with more viewings it’ll be seen as his most ambitious.

Especially given that, on top of his leads being relatively unknown, half of the main players are digitally synthesized alien beings.

Sam Worthington more than holds his own when thrust into Cameron’s vision, but…I hate to say it…I wasn’t terribly impressed.
That sounds bad…I’ll rephrase. Because Jake WAS an interesting character…in ‘Avatar’ form.

So basically whenever Sam isn’t on screen in the flesh he’s good.
That sounds terrible … haha…
I just got the impression that he was still in ‘Marcus Wright’ mode here, wheelchair or not. I’m just not that convinced that he’s the next big thing. Maybe “Clash of the Titans” will change that, who knows.

Thankfully, I wasn’t banking on Sam being the one to keep an eye on.
From Sarah Connor to Max from “Dark Angel,” Jim has always been known for preferring strong female protagonists in the bulk of his material.

Needless to say that tradition continues and, personally, I found my favorite performance in the form of Zoë Saldana…which is ironically a complete 180 on how I felt about her role as Uhura in this summer’s “Star Trek.”
Her portrayal of Princess Neytiri is unbelievably captivating and heartfelt. This is a credit both to Saldana and the technicians and artists at ILM and WETA responsible for her motion capture. Every eye blink, every emotional facial tick and hand gesture all make for an incredible performance…her emotions, for being CG, are absolutely palpable and tangible. Whether she’s sobbing over her dead father after the destruction of Hometree or engaging in vengeful combat with the RDA you can just feel Zoë pushing through the visual effect in a lovely yet powerful way.

The remainder of the cast manages to carry the film and round it out well enough.
Having Sigourney team up with Jim again feels like a long time coming and despite her role being a tad miniscule it was more than worth it. She brings a very Ripley-esque strength to Grace…a bit more weathered and older to highlight the difference in her age between now and “Aliens.”
Stephen Lang is wonderful as the ‘Love to Hate’ bad guy obsessed with destroying the Na’vi. The whole film from Hometree’s destruction on you’re just aching for Quaritch to get his and bite it; the fact that Lang’s deadpan grit and resolve makes you feel that way speaks volumes for how much his skill can provoke an audience. While he may not carry the charisma of Khan Noonen Singh or the Joker, he’s most certainly a formidable and worthy adversary.
I was also quite a fan of CCH Pounder as Neytiri’s mother, Moat. Aside from Alfre Woodard I can’t think of a stronger black actress who could’ve brought what CCH did to the role…that certain presence about her just works for the character’s benefit quite well.

Even smaller bits seem infinitely detailed…like Giovanni Ribisi as Parker, doing his best to channel Paul Reiser from “Aliens” as a sleazy pencil-necked company man trying to dominate a situation he has, in his own awkwardness, no place being a part of.
Of course, after all the trailers and hype it’s a given that the biggest draw for “Avatar” lie primarily not with the story or characters that respectively unfold on and populate Pandora…but rather with the world of Pandora itself.

Spectacle enthusiasts will assuredly be pleased.
Thanks to the incredible amount of work spanning over a decade from Peter Jackson’s WETA to Industrial Light & Magic and everyone in between, “Avatar” is easily one of the most visually arresting films of the decade.

Like “Star Wars” or “The Matrix” before it, the film has taken its production and release as an opportunity to be more than just a movie…but a watershed moment, pushing the boundaries of digital effects technology, motion capture, conceptual design, cinematography and 3D technology all to a newly elevated plateau of magnificence and quality that the industry at large will have no choice but to recognize and aspire to.

The effects work of the film defies description…but I’ll try.
The environments of Pandora are beautifully rendered with lush, vibrant color and an endless assortment of quirks and traits that make it feel absolutely alive.

Where the locales of the “Star Wars” prequels felt very much like artificial stages, Pandora is living and breathing; a detailed marvel quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. From the bio-luminescent flora and foliage that spreads across the landscape to the colossal ‘Sky Mountains’ hovering above the surface, “Avatar” is nothing short of breathtaking to look at.

Then there’s the Na’vi themselves.
Long story short, these guys make Jar Jar look like an effect made for “Tron.”
The motion control captures every gesture, both conscious and subconscious and makes the Na’vi appear as photo realistic as is now possible.

There’s a wonderful moment where Jake’s ‘Avatar’ rises from water. Not only is the skin of the ‘Avatar’ wet, so is the clothing…and it’s image accurate…AND it’s lit correctly!
THAT’s dedication on the part of the animators, artists and technicians. However from Cameron I’d expect nothing less.
There’s a strong sense with the visual effects of “Avatar” that barely and other example of computer-generated imagery has.
That’s tangibility…weight…honesty.
Jar Jar didn’t do that…neither did Davy Jones or the Transformers. This stuff is more in line with the T-Rex from “ Jurassic Park ” or Cameron’s own T-1000.

Aside from the Na’vi, Pandora is also home to an array of strange beasts all birthed from the bizarre mind of “Cloverfield” and “Star Trek” creature designer Neville Page. From the giant flying Banshees ridden by the Na’vi (I just LOVE that idea of the Na’vi using tendrils in their hair to connect and link with the nervous systems of other creatures; sort of a hive mind concept) to my favorite creature…the one that Jake is told to run from…with its ferocious, almost Xenomorph like appearance…Page tops his own previous work delivering us some of the nest creatures since late Cameron alum Stan Winston.

We’re also treated to exemplary work at the hands of cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Training Day,” “Smokin’ Aces”). With the fact that the film by in large is visual effects based, the task of lighting Pandora and portraying Cameron’s vision and his story is an overwhelming one. But with Jim’s aid (obviously he’s known for being very hands on) Fiore breathes a sense of majesty into his frame with lighting that expertly doesn’t play to the intangible faults of the fact that the world we’re on is fabricated. Nearly every shot in the film, given we’re under the umbrella of “James Cameron’s Return,” is epic…to put it mildly I suppose. The scale is monstrous, the lighting is gorgeous and I think it’s a very clear advancement in the field of lighting artificial locations.

The film’s production design is splendidly conceived. Designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg bring a wonderful sense of tangibility to the sanctuary terrain of the Na’vi, dubbed Hometree. It’s rich and organic…not to mention massive.
The attention put towards making this completely alien world so immersive and expansive is just unreal with I really think about it.
They bring a completely different approach to the human presence on Pandora. Following the likes of Cyberdyne and Weyland Yutani, Carter and Stromberg’s approach to the RDA is one of gratuitously industrialized tech-noir through railings and pexi-glass…surfaces of chrome and gun metal.

The Bio-Medics lab where Jake, Norm and Grace link to their ‘Avatar’s is just undeniably Cameron…like they took the design approach from “Minority Report” and roughed it up, made it even more cool. The entire aesthetic of the mechanical design that represents humanity on Pandora is meant to be an exercise in the idea that a pristine (in this case metallic and glass) surface conceals the ugly nature of RDA’s intent beneath it. As a fan of such design work as “Aliens” and “Blade Runner,” I loved the approach.

One of the other interesting concepts were the interactive 3D HUDs and computer screens throughout the picture; AWESOME!
This follows into the vehicle designs for the film. From the Heli-Carriers with their encircled gyro blades to the MASSIVE transport shuttles (complete with pull-out, morgue-like cryo tubes!), Cameron knows what his fans like.
The Dragon Gunship was also a very inspired design, reminiscent of the Sulaco Drop Ships with a slight tinge of Vietnam in their make up.

And who wouldn’t love to pilot one of the RDA’s giant Mech-Walkers? Like an advanced hybrid of the “Aliens” power-loader and the APUs from “The Matrix: Revolutions,” the walkers look pretty bad ass but nothing radically new. Not that that’s a bad thing, seeing how the Mechs are operated (they’re linked up to the pilot through synaptic control gloves that allow the arms to perfectly imitate that of the pilot’s movement), I’d be freaked to try one on for size and go to work.

What, yet again, is so interesting with “Avatar”…perhaps its most interesting aspect…is that Jim himself was on boards as one of the film’s editors.
As a result, along with the weight of his own existence, the edit is a lengthy and tense one at 2 hours and 40 minutes. But it’s worth it so that Cameron’s vision is in no way inhibited.

Aside from that, the edit has a great sense of rhythm to it (perhaps one too many sacred Na’vi rituals but that’s more of a story issue and not that big a deal) and the action scenes are among Cameron’s best (not on the level of “Terminator II” however). The edit never loses its sense of momentum due in large part to the film’s spectacle and, to a lesser yet still worthy extent, its cast.

The only fault I found with it was the overabundance of voice over. Jim has never been one to flat out exposite (remember Kyle Reese’s ‘running commentary’ in “Terminator?”) so he attempts to mask it through Jake’s own character as well as the log tapes he’s told to make.
It only goes so far and by the end, at least for me, the voice over wasn’t all that necessary.
It’s really a nitpick more than anything though.

With the sights, sounds and characters of Pandora all diligently orchestrated…all that remained was the voice of Jim’s new science fiction opus. The task of the film’s riveting score fell to none other than composer James Horner, who had previously scored both “Aliens” and “Titanic” for Cameron. Oddly enough the material composed for “Avatar” seems very much like a symbiotic melding of those two scores…or, at least, the aesthetic brought to each. On the one hand you’ve got the sweeping romantic undertones of “Titanic” beautifully representing Jake and Neytiri’s relationship while the harsh and uncompromising percussive nature of “Aliens” returns to lend power to the conflict between the RDA and the Na’vi (only THIS time the Marines are the baddies!).

One of my favorite cues is “Climbing up ‘Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven” as Jake, Neytiri and other Na’vi trail to where the Banshees reside so that Jake can challenge and earn his own companion. The cue’s use of the chorus is wonderfully compelling and theatrical as it dives, quite literally, right into “Jake’s first flight.”

There’s also the operatic power of “Gathering the Na’vi clans for battle” that’s exceedingly rousing as the warrior race increases their numbers. The tribal instruments representative of the Na’vi are engrossing and work very well without feeling hokey or forced…This all leads up to “War,” a dynamite cue that sees Horner pulling out all the stops particularly with the brass and woodwinds as the final conflict reaches the boiling point.

It’s one of Horner’s most ambitious and, I can assume, demanding scores.
It’s also among his best.

Accompanying the score is “Avatar”s answer to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ with the captivatingly earthy and poetic ‘I See You (Theme from “Avatar”)’ performed by the enigmatic Leona Lewis. Her silk-strewn voice bodes well in bringing Jake and Neytiri’s bond a brilliantly organic theme…it’s a lovely song.

In the end, “Avatar” might not live up to its marketing claim that ‘Movies will never be the same.’ Only time will tell on that one so I won’t presume to have an opinion on that front.

All I can say is that I very much enjoyed the movie…not just the experience, not just Cameron’s return…but the movie.
It’s engaging, it’s dazzling…and while I’m always against the idea of sequels nowadays, I would actually look forward to returning to this world that Jim has created.

Was it worth the wait to get Jim back?

I truly think so.

Written and Directed by … James Cameron
Executive Produced by … Colin Wilson
Produced by … James Cameron, Jon Landau, Brooke Breton, Josh MacLaglen, Janace Tashjian and Peter M. Tobyansen
Cinematography by Mauro Fiore
Production Design by … Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg
Editing by … John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin and James Cameron
Visual Effects by … WETA and Industrial Light & Magic
Costume Design by … Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah Lynn Scott
Original Motion Picture Score composed by … James Horner
‘I See You (“Theme from Avatar”)’ performed by … Leona Lewis
Sam Worthington … Jake Sully
Zoë Saldaña … Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver … Dr. Grace Augustine
Stephen Lang … Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez … Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi … Parker Selfridge
Joel David Moore … Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder … Moat
Wes Studi … Eytukan
Laz Alonso … Tsu’tey
Dileep Rao … Dr. Max Patel
Matt Gerald … Corporal Lyle Wainfleet
Sean Anthony Moran … Private Fike
Jason Whyte … Cryo Vault Med Tech
Scott Lawrence … Venture Star Crew Chief
Kelly Kilgour … Lock Up Trooper
James Pitt … Shuttle Pilot
Sean Patrick Murphy … Shuttle Co-Pilot
Peter Dillon … Shuttle Crew Chief
Kevin Dorman … Tractor Operator
Kelson Henderson … Dragon Gunship Pilot
David Van Horn … Dragon Gunship Gunner
Jacob Tomuri … Dragon Gunship Navigator
Michael Blain-Rozgay … Suit #1
Jon Curry … Suit #2
Julene Renee … Ambient Room Tech
Luke Hawker … Ambient Room Tech
Woody Schultz … Ambient Room Tech
Peter Mensah … Horse Clan Leader
Sonia Yee … Link Room Tech
Ilram Choi … Basketball Avatar
Kyla Warren … Na’vi Child

. . .

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4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Austin #

    Awesome review.

  2. Robert D #

    I think that was the longest article I have ever read, though a very enjoyable one. I saw this film yesterday and it is absolutely amazing and stunning. It is a must see in theaters.

  3. 3

    I feel like I am one of the very few people left who hasn’t seen the movie. I am supposed to check it out this weekend. I can’t wait to see it, then re-read your assessment, Chas.

  4. Kent #

    Great movie and a great review.