Paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes his dead brothers place in the Avatar program amid the lush paradise moon of Pandora because his DNA is compatible with the vat-grown body being held there. For what purpose exactly? Well it is a replica of a Na’vi, the eight-foot blue-skinned tribe species that inhabit Pandora, remotely controlled from within the facility in what seems to be an extortionately expensive solution to a problem no-one has. The moon’s air is toxic but only if inhaled, face-masks serve all the humans just fine throughout the movie, and the Na’vi is fully aware of their presence anyway. If ‘the company’ wants to bulldoze the utopia for an earth saving super-mineral why are they funding such a costly project to research what they’re about to destroy? Still, chain smoking Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is determined to study the planet and its unusual life forms so she and Norm (Joel Moore) pack Sully into his new body, complete with working legs and take him into the jungle.
Here Cameron takes us into the second phase of his schizophrenic movies personalities, from cerebral sci-fi character study to Jurassic Park aping dangerous wonderment. Sully is separated from the team and forced to spend a night in a wilderness as eye-wateringly beautiful as it is inhospitable. He’s saved from six-legged coyote aliens by our fearless love interest, Na’vi huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Apparently the tree spirit she worships sends it’s deus ex Machina seeds to, well suck on Sully’s skin, making him holy enough not to kill. So she pleads to her father, the chief, to let Sully learn their ways getting the opportunity to babysit him.
Now Sully’s able to spy from the inside and report to Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) on how to destroy the home-tree so that company man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) can gut the land for profit. Is it something the company wants to do, we’re told they value unnecessary causalities less than cold hard cash. Yes, this film does have an undertone of US foreign policy regarding the Middle East and it’s painfully unsubtle. Selfridge is actually a thoroughly watchable antagonist and Ribisi clearly relishes the villainous greed he’s allowed to exhibit. Quaritch is the flip side, he loves war for wars sake, he orders the destruction of innocents while stirring his morning coffee and he may be the finest badass cinema has seen in quite some time. He’s also promised Sully the use of his legs back when the mission’s complete, he’s got three months to convince the Na’vi to move. So he sets about learning from Neytiri they spat, they wisecrack, she laughs at him, they share all too fleeting glances and hey at the other end of the montage they’re in love. Before you can say conflict of interests we are given the first of a series of showdowns, all exhilarating action sequences, the senses are bombarded until you give in to the audacity of it all. It’s a mess, a glorious Kaleidoscopic mess full of plot holes and questionable character motivation. It’s incredibly patronising for a film with such a rich vein of political and social setup as all complicated plot points are covered by a pseudo-scientific magic. For example, the mineral that the humans are mining for is called Unobtanium, an industry term for movie science that defies all known physical laws. That flies in Armageddon rip-off romp The Core when nothing is supposed to be taken seriously but this is the film notoriously fiery perfectionist James Cameron spent over a decade and several millions of dollars to develop.
Avatars disregard for logic in favour of giving the audience something stunning is both infuriating and breathtaking, and most of the time it delivers. There are too many earth animals in new and unnatural colours, or sporting a fancy set of extra limbs to really believe that this is another world.
What is the purpose of the Avatar program if not to trick the natives and if so why is that then a secret from the research team? Why do military personal have such a poor grasp of guerrilla tactics? How can any force compel mountains to float without crushing all surrounding life forms? These kinds of questions are either ignored or given over to movie science magic. It’s a world too big to have any time committed to analysis or explanation; we neatly pass through earths turbulent past century and a half in a couple of lines. Amazingly for all that’s left unsaid it’s also about an hour too long, would it have been better to release a faux documentary about Pandoran life? Possibly, but Cameron is not an artist, he’s producing a product that’s easily marketable and he’s delivered a spectacle with a veneer of plot and characterisation clichés. To that end he’s hired highly capable actors Sam Worthington proving that he can carry a film of epic proportions, Sigourney Weaver tethering everything to a semblance of reality, Zoe Saldana keeping the Na’vi on the right side of insulting stereotypes and Stephen Lang with Giovanni Ribisi as convincing forces to be reckoned with.
Its ambition is staggering, it’s aiming to trump The Lord Of The Rings and it falls some way short of that but it is still a remarkable achievement. It’s worth the extra money you’ll pay for a 3D viewing and therefore it’s ahead of the curve.