James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – A Cinematic Spectacle Like Few Others

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2009.

“That is our (USA) job around the world; run in, free some people, and whip a little industry on them. So they can enjoy the benefits of industry that we have come to enjoy (cough).”

-George Carlin from “Class Clown”

“Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one. I’d hoped that we had learned from our mistakes but it seems that some of us haven’t.”

“Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.”

“How many people does it take, Admiral before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE, ADMIRAL?!”

-Patrick Stewart and Anthony Zerbe from “Star Trek: Insurrection”

We waited for this one almost as long as we waited for the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” and now it is here. James Cameron has been at it again, making the most expensive movie ever, but this is nothing new and I am so burned out from hearing all the gossip about his movie budgets. The naysayers were out in full force proclaiming this would be a disaster as its release was delayed a number of times. But “Avatar” once again shows there is no one more equipped than Cameron to change the way we look at movies. With his latest epic, he has achieved the impossible and completely blurred the line between what is real and what is a special effect, and I could never tell the difference from start to finish.

You have to give a lot of credit to this ambitious director for being ever so patient. Cameron waited years for the technology to catch up to where he could tell this story most effectively, and he even invented a new camera with his brother to make the most convincing 3D movie we could ever hope to see. So many others would be in a hurry to get a movie up on the screen to where nothing but shortcuts are taken, but “Avatar” had a two year post production period (the longest ever) to get every little detail covered. This movie needs to be seen on the big screen as it was made for it. Waiting for a physical or digital release to watch it on would be tragic.

“Avatar” stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully. Jake is a former marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down, and he does not ask for sympathy or pity. He ends up being recruited for a mission on Pandora, a moon on the far reaches of space. This mission was originally meant for his brother, but he passed away before he could take it on. Pandora is inhabited by very tall blue creatures called the Na’vi, and avatars of them have been created so that humans can walk among them undetected so they can be studied more closely.

Of course, these avatars are also being closely observed by the military as they plan to infiltrate the Na’vi and force them off their sacred land. For what reason? So that the greedy corporation (is there any other kind these days?) can get at the mineral called unobtanium (nice play on words). This mineral represents an enormous cash cow for soulless investors back on Earth, and it also serves as a much-needed source of energy it desperately needs. In the future, it appears humanity has extended the manifest destiny policy from other countries to the far reaches of space. I mean, heaven forbid we allow other cultures to handle their precious resources without our unsolicited advice! Do we ever learn?

Anyway, the story of “Avatar” has been told many times before; a disillusioned military officer comes face to face with people he has been fighting, and soon he becomes enamored with their lifestyle and code of honor to where he is integrated into their society. This has been the basis for “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” and even “The Emerald Forest.”. We know the setup and how it’s all going to go, but Cameron still makes it work by having us invest emotionally in these characters. By doing so, all the action and the visuals presented to us become all the more enthralling.

Seriously, Cameron has been one of the very best storytellers in movies for decades now. This at times gets lost on people because his dialogue can be quite cringe inducing. You want to go up to him and make him realize people don’t talk to each other the way he thinks they do. It constantly reminds me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas about his script for “Star Wars”:

“You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”

For what’s it worth, however, Lucas makes Cameron sound like David Mamet.

Regardless, the strength of the story he has concocted makes the visuals on display all the more exhilarating. My big issue with most effects driven movies is you can tell when you are watching a CGI effect. All this does is completely take me out of the movie to where I roll my eyes and wonder why Hollywood regularly underestimates audiences.

Now at the start of “Avatar,” when Jake is looking at the creature he will be, you can definitely tell what is real and what is computer generated. But as the movie goes on, I honestly couldn’t figure out which was which. I tried, believe me I tried to see the difference, but there was just no way. Plus, the motion capture they used on the actors is astonishing. The avatars are made to look like the actors playing them, and the movements are so amazingly lifelike to where it makes every other 2009 movie see, like it was made back in 1987. That description may be stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t resist.

The art direction in this movie is incredible, and the color blue (my favorite) is used quite a lot. There are other astonishingly breathtaking visuals like the floating mountains which looked quite real…. Damn it! I am running out of words to describe what I saw. You have to see it for yourself.

As Jake Sully, Worthington keeps him from being a complete cliché and infuses him with a nobility which has served him well in life. But one of the most welcome actors here is Sigourney Weaver who is appearing in her first Cameron movie since “Aliens.” Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar program. While the military wants to use her work for their own manipulative methods, she uses them to help gain the trust of the Na’vi and study their world for peaceful and scientific purposes. She is the classic Cameron female character; tough as nails, controlling, and never ever a pushover Apparently, Weaver based her character on Cameron to an extent. To steal a line from “Up in The Air,” Dr. Grace Augustine may very well be James Cameron with a vagina.

Another classic Cameron female is played by Michelle Rodriguez, still looking as hot as she did in “Fast & Furious.” Her character of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon is somewhat similar to Jeanette Goldstein’s character of Vasquez from “Aliens”; a badass soldier who is as tough as the men, maybe even tougher. She’s certainly a lot more morally conscious than the majority of the marines in the film, and Rodriguez makes sure you never forget that.

You also have Giovanni Ribisi playing Parker Selfridge (yes, his last name rhymes with selfish), the corporate manager in charge of the mining operation on Pandora. Like Paul Reiser’s character from “Aliens,” he is only interested in making a gigantic profit which will set him up for life. I love how Ribisi plays Parker as a pragmatic ass with absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever as this character is ever so gleeful about what is in store for him once this mineral is sufficiently mined. The way he sees it, what’s the big deal?

But one of the best performances comes from Stephen Lang who plays the brutal Colonel Miles Quaritch. Despite some of the ridiculous dialogue which comes out of his mouth, Lang completely makes Miles into a soldier you would be incredibly foolish to mess with. Like Tom Berenger in “Platoon,” his face is deeply scarred, and he does nothing to hide that. Miles simply sees it as an illustration of how nasty the moon of Pandora is. His flaw, however, is that he cannot see who the Na’vi really as his anger against them has long since powered by an everlasting fear which he cannot overcome.

Now let’s talk about the Na’vi, those big blue creatures who are tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. They could have made or have broken “Avatar.” Cameron has said he thought about the story long before he began working on “Titanic,” and that he even thought about these characters when he was a kid. Now having an original race of people who speak their own language may work well on “Star Trek,” but in other shows and movies, it looks more comical and ridiculous than was originally intended. This is not the case here.

This brings me to the performance of Zoë Saldaña, who you may remember as Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” She plays Neytiri, Princess of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. Neytiri is the first real Na’vi to come in contact with Jake Sully, and she later falls in love with him. In essence, a lot of “Avatar” rests on her performance, and she succeeds in making you believe in this race of beings to where you see them as more than just an amazing series of special effects. This ends up making it easier for other actors like Wes Studi and CCH Pounder to portray their characters without having to expend too much effort in helping you buy into these extra-terrestrials. Saldana sets up the groundwork, and everyone follows her from there.

“Avatar” deals with many of the same themes Cameron has dealt with throughout his career: military intervention into a foreign land, machines versus nature, love found between beings from different worlds or societies, how scientists and those with curious minds seek to understand the aliens and make peace with them, and how corporations will do anything for a profit. The parallels between what the military forces are doing in Pandora and our wars in Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention our current escalation in Afghanistan, are clear as day, and it does make the movie feel timely.

But one of the especially interesting things here is how Cameron utilizes a lot of the technology which was on display in his previous films. Those armed walkers Colonel Quaritch uses look to be an upgrade of the driver Weaver used in the climax of “Aliens” (which the Wachowski brothers all but ripped off for “The Matrix” sequels). The mind devices used to control the avatars looks a lot like the head pieces used in “Strange Days.” The scenes of humans interacting with otherworldly creatures bring to mind similar scenes from “The Abyss.” And you have characters who go from being antagonists to becoming the good guys (“Terminator 2” was a classic example of this). With all this in mind, I thought Cameron was running out of new ideas, but I love how he combines them all up to good use in “Avatar.”

But enough of me babbling about “Avatar.” Whatever weaknesses this movie may have are undone by its well-earned achievements. Once again, see this movie in a theater! I don’t care if you hate going to the movies. “Avatar” is a great and reinvigorating reminder of how sitting in a darkened movie theater can be so thrilling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find an IMAX theater playing this movie that is not sold out for weeks in advance. Seeing something like this on the silver screen once is never enough, ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

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