Avatar (2009): United States – directed by James Cameron

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains violence, some language, and mostly-naked blue aliens

Avatar has been a long time coming.  The hype has been enormous, the marketing blitz intense.  Judging from both critical reviews and word-of-mouth, it would appear that the film has lived up to the enormous expectations.  This is something perhaps only James Cameron could have accomplished.

Will Avatar be viewed as a major stepping stone in the history of cinema?  Perhaps.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it leaves a mark on future generations much like the mark Star Wars left in the 1970’s.  Is Avatar deserving of such a distinction?  Perhaps.  I wonder if people viewing Avatar ten years from now will be as forgiving of its faults as people are watching Star Wars decades after its release.

The story involves the planet Pandora.  Humanity has sent scientists and a military force in an attempt to obtain a remarkably valuable mineral called unobtainium.  Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the corporate suit in charge of the operation, and his only concern is reporting to the share holders.  Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is head of the military presence on Pandora, and his only concern seems to be destroying the natives and their planet.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the head scientist on Pandora, in charge of a complex project designed to place human consciousness inside alien bodies.  Specifically, she has perfected a system of allowing a human’s brain to control an organic avatar that looks exactly like a native Na’vi.  The Na’vi are large, about 10-12 feet tall, and blue.  They have a unique culture and language, and Dr. Augustine’s goal is to peacefully observe and learn their customs from the confines of a Na’vi avatar.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, fresh off Terminator Salvation [reviewed here]) is a paraplegic marine assigned to work with Dr. Augustine’s avatar project.  Sent into the native population, Sully soon discovers a much richer culture than the corporate or marine factions could fathom.  He meets the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and begins learning the ways of the Na’vi.  Soon, though, the division between the pacifistic scientists, the militaristic corporation, and the fierce Na’vi becomes so intense that it must end in violent conflict.

The most immediate aspect of Avatar is the production itself.  Cameron has reportedly spent years perfecting the technology required to create and film Pandora and the Na’vi.  He has succeeded remarkably in creating a living, breathing world.  Watching the film in 3D is an experience in complete immersion that has never before been attempted.  The sights and sounds are breathtaking, with gorgeous landscapes and fantastic creatures.  The art and animation are fluid like no other CG has ever been, though there is still a slight break between the extended CG sequences and the parts involving actual humans.  The action is exciting and thrilling, served faithfully by the technology created for the film.

The story and characters, on the other hand, are nothing but conventional.  Nearly everyone has a single motivation.  Character development apart from Sully is limited so as to be non-existence.  The story is reminiscent of Dances with Wolves in space, with blue-skinned Native Americans.  Cameron, having directed such crowd-pleasers as Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day knows the elements required to produce a successful blockbuster.  He has assembled every single element here, including the requisite romance, heart-pounding action, cutting-edge visuals, and an epic setting.  As a result the film plays it very safe, not attempting anything new or original outside of the visuals.

I enjoyed the film a great deal.  I walked out of the theater feeling as though I had experienced something impressive.  I am surprised, however, at just how high praise for the film has been.  Part of me wants to trash the film out of vengeful spite, but I cannot do this.  It is not a great film, but it is very good.  I had a great time watching it, even though it never fully immersed me emotionally.  I enjoyed the action and the characters, even though they lack depth and aren’t particularly well-acted.

I believe Avatar will be viewed as a cinematic stepping stone in the years to come, and I am glad that it is a good enough movie to deserve the distinction.  It is good enough that I am glad it is making a lot of money at the box office.  It is good enough that I will not be angry at any future accolades it may garner.  It is a technologically revolutionary crowd-pleaser, and it succeeds admirably at what it intends to accomplish.  On top of that, I had a lot of fun watching it in spite of its flaws and conventionality.