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Review: ‘Avatar’ Reinvents Science-Fiction Moviemaking

SPOILERS: James Cameron proves that even 12 years later, he still has his touch

This review contains spoilers for the film “Avatar.”

Since seeing “Avatar” at a midnight showing early Friday, I’ve been thinking a lot about what James Cameron has contributed to filmmaking.

And not just the technology he’s pioneered, but the films themselves. We already know about “Titanic,” the biggest box office grosser of all time. But then there’s some other amazing films like “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” There’s “Aliens” and “The Abyss.” And, of course, we can’t leave out Cameron’s television offering “Dark Angel.”

So why I went into “Avatar” with apprehension and fear is beyond me. I walked out believing Cameron has indeed set a new bar when it comes to science-fiction filmmaking, and maybe even filmmaking as a whole. It’s something that doesn’t happen often. “Star Wars” did it in 1977. Cameron’s own “Titanic” did it in 1997. “Gladiator” did it in 2000. Now “Avatar” can be added to the list.

The year is 2154, and Earth (as it seems to always be doing in the future) is dying. Humans have reached out to the stars and found a planet called Pandora that is rich in a highly valuable mineral called unobtainium.

Unfortunately, Pandora is not very hospitable to humans. They can’t breathe the atmosphere, the native life on the planet is hostile, and a rather peaceful savage race of 10-foot hunters called the Na’vi live there.

Jake Sully makes the nearly six-year journey to Pandora in place of his twin brother, a scientist who was gunned down just before he was shipped out. A one-time Marine, Sully was confined to a wheelchair thanks to a spinal injury that could be fixed, if only he had the money to do it.

The company involved in the Pandora project had already spent a lot of money creating an avatar for Sully’s brother, a home-grown Na’vi that has matching DNA to allow a specific human the ability to “drive” it remotely. Since he was a twin, Sully was able to drive this avatar.

Once arriving on Pandora, Sully discovers he’s caught in the middle between two different ideas on how to handle Pandora: Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who prefers military might to relocate, or even eradicate, the Na’vi, and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist who spent years trying to create peaceful relations with the indigenous species.

At first, Sully — who found some common ground with Quaritch — works secretly for him, trying to gather intelligence on a large group of Na’vi near an area known as Bigtree, marked by a tree that towers hundred, if not thousands, of feet into the air. However, an accident his first day out in his avatar leads him to meet Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the clan’s leadership at Bigtree. And right when she is about to kill Sully from behind, a seed from the sacred tree lands on her arrowhead, giving her a sign that there is something special about him.

Sully is eventually led to the camp where leadership thinks about killing him, knowing he is a “dreamwalker” and a part of the Sky People, but Sully convinces them that he wants to learn their ways, and is not coming in with preconceived notions as the scientists did, since he’s not one himself.

Over the course of three months, he trains to be a Na’vi hunter with Neytiri in some of the most beautiful computer-generated environments ever created. Once he kills an animal for food, but says a prayer respecting the life that it was giving up for the benefit of the Na’vi, Neytiri leads him on a journey to capture his own ikran, a flying animal that will psychically connect with just a single Na’vi its entire life.

This psychic connection was probably one of the most original ideas I’ve seen in a genre production of any kind in a very long time. Some of the various creatures have membranes that can interlace with those of the Na’vi, allowing mental bonding and control. At first, this seemed a bit clumsy and unnecessary in the story, but then seeing the bonding in action — even as background movements — made this seem highly real and interesting.

The look of the Na’vi are entirely CGI. In fact, we never see Saldana or other actors who portrayed the native Na’vi like CCH Pounder as Moat and Laz Alonso as Tsu’Tey. Yet, like “District 9” earlier this year, these people look entirely real, and not cartoonish in any way.

Some of this technology really got a boost, sadly, from “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” in terms of Jar Jar Binks and many of the droids used for the film. However, they still looked slightly cartoonish. However, by the time Peter Jackson went into post-production for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating highly realistic CGI characters like Gollum had become possible, and that allowed Cameron to finally begin pre-production on “Avatar.”

The story itself is a common one found in other major productions such as “Dances With Wolves,” the analogy of pushing Native Americans off their land, and treating them as something inferior to a group with stronger technological might. But Cameron’s characters, environment, dialogue is simply stunning and original. With composer James Horner returning — and adding some musical touches from “Titanic” and even “Aliens” — you know almost from the beginning you’re watching an epic piece, one that will be watched, studied and emulated for many years.

Finally, there has been some story comparisons to a Poul Anderson short from the 1950s entitled “Call Me Joe” that centers on remote control of creatures on the planet Jupiter. In that story, the man controlling a creature also can’t walk, but to be honest, that’s where the similarities end. Could there have been some inspiration from that to “Avatar?” Sure, but not enough to give Anderson credit, in my opinion as those aspects only go into characterization, and remotely controlling creatures is hardly a new story concept.

What Worked

The real question is what didn’t work. Oh wait, we do ask that.

The entire idea of “Avatar” is so different from what we typically find in films. So is the way the story is presented, beginning at the arrival at Pandora, but flashing back to key story points to help bring audiences up to speed on what happened through the use of video logs — one which comes back to bite Sully in the ass later in the story.

Although some might say 3-D viewing is simply a nostalgic throwback to the 1950s, it’s hard to imagine “Avatar” not in 3-D. By the time I’m filing this review (a little late, sorry), I’ve seen this film twice in 3-D, once in IMAX. I have yet to see it on a flat surface, and surely some of my friends who still want me to join them in watching this film will prefer not to wear the 3-D glasses. But there is something about providing a visual texture and depth to this that adds so much to feeling like you’re really there, to really help you become involved in the story (not that such a trick is needed). It’s almost like using the same psychic bonding that the Na’vi use.

And the Na’vi. Extremely beautiful creatures. I was looking to find a Na’vi that wasn’t muscular, chiseled and such in the crowd (at least a fat Na’vi), but couldn’t find any, so that was a let down when it comes to realism. But unlike in a previous Weaver film “Galaxy Quest” when one of the human characters fell in love with a squid-like creature, you can see how Sully would be attracted to the very beautiful Neytiri, or really anyone else on the planet.

Finally, Weaver should be pointed out for her work on this film. They say Augustine is actually inspired by Cameron himself, and if that’s true, I can see why so many people want to work with this man (and not just because of his genius on film).

I had worried that after 12 years, Cameron may not be fully aware how much audiences have changed over that span, but I should know better. Just because he was away doesn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention, and “Avatar” proves that he not only has a grasp of what’s happening right now, but what should happen in the future of the film industry.

What Didn’t Work

This is minor stuff, but I thought the base administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) was entirely two-dimensional. His primary role was some comic relief, provide some exposition, and to play an almost mustache-twisting bad guy. It was clear his motivation was money, but it didn’t feel like his character was fully fleshed out on screen.

Sadly, I think some of that has to go to Quaritch as well. Although he was played beautifully by Lang and he was far more developed than Selfridge, there never seemed to be a sense of what really motivated Quaritch outside the fact that he was simply a military guy. I’m not sure if that was entirely essential to the story, but Cameron has a habit of giving highly simplistic motivations to bad guys (kill the mother of our resistance leader, get rid of the guy who is making the moves on my girlfriend while riding on this big ship, eat humans, yum!) so that should be expected. But I know Cameron can grow and change like everyone else, and having deeper motivations to lead those we are rooting against so it looks more real, and less like man in white versus man in black.

Finally, one other nitpick. It takes six years to get to Pandora. The people on the base are sending material back, obviously taking six years, and it’s not clear how they will be paid. It also seems that a six-year transport is a long time for any material, and the cost of mining and transport alone must be extremely high.

While it was never said what the material was used for, we know it’s real expensive (at least we think we do, assuming that inflation hasn’t skyrocketed over the next 150 years), but the logistics of such an operation seem a little hard to swallow in a sense of reality.

But then again, some might say the same about building huge ships and sending exploratory crews like Kirk and Picard to the stars on yeas-long missions.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

“Avatar” stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, CCH Pounder and Laz Alonso. It was written and directed by James Cameron.

“Avatar” is now playing in theaters worldwide.

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