When a movie boasts the incredible feat of becoming the highest grossing picture of all time, ground-breaking visual effects, extremely favorable critical reception, and has a director that undoubtedly still believes himself to be “King of the world!”, a person does wonder, “Is it really possible for a single movie to be that awesome?” That’s the question that continued to nag at me until I finally got around to watching director James Cameron’s (“Titanic”) sci-fi/fantasy epic, “Avatar”.
“Avatar” follows a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), as he undertakes a mission for the government to assist in gaining possession of an extremely valuable mineral nicknamed “Unobtanium”. Standing in the government’s way is the indigenous populace of the planet Pandora, a cat-like alien race known as the Na’vi. To complete his mission, Jake must become one of the natives, gain their trust, and convince them to leave the only place they’ve ever called home. The problem is that the more Jake learns about the Na’vi, courtesy of his guide Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the more he begins to lose sight of his objective; thus, putting not only his mission in jeopardy, but the very lives of the Na’vi.
Let’s start by discussing the most pressing matter regarding this movie, in my mind… the visual effects work. Well, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, James Cameron has managed to create one of the most realistic CGI worlds and people (the Na’vi) ever to be seen on the silver screen. Those that know me, heard me say many times that I doubted he would be able to make the eyes look right, as this has always been a trouble spot for CGI born characters. Not to mention, nine foot tall, blue, cat-like aliens interacting with live actors would be difficult to accomplish realistically.
Despite my misgivings, the folks at WETA Digital (visual effects house) along with the incredibly complicated motion-capture techniques that Cameron employed, have blown the lid off of what computer generated imagery has been able to accomplish thus far. From the smallest details (facial ticks, pores on the skin) to physical movements (walking, talking, fighting), and yes even the eyes, almost everything about these characters looks authentic.
As for the lush world of Pandora that the Na’vi inhabits, it is a world of beauty and wonder, and looks absolutely stunning. However, the creation of Pandora isn’t nearly as big of an accomplishment as the characters. Realistic worlds have been created in several other movies prior to this one, perhaps not to this magnitude though. The bottom line is this movie represents a significant leap forward in the realm of CGI and officially sets a new standard for visual effects in movies.
Now, there was at least one flaw in the CGI that I spotted, and I would be remiss not to touch on that for a moment. Another issue that plagues visual effects, aside from life-like eyes, is creating realistic fire. For the most part, the fire and explosions looked fantastic, and one could be hard-pressed to find an actual flame or fireball that looked any more real. However, there was a moment where the character of Jake takes a stick to make a torch, and in that scene the fire on the torch looks horrible by comparison. Nothing about it looks even remotely true to life, and I was surprised that James Cameron would allow this less-than-stellar result in his otherwise visually stunning movie.
The story for “Avatar” is a fairly simple one. It’s your basic undercover story, where the person sent to essentially spy on someone eventually either falls for their quarry or joins their cause, foregoing all other allegiances. The plot points play out in a fairly predictable manner, especially in the final 45 minutes when the battle over Pandora really begins to heat up. Even with the predictability of the story, I didn’t really find that it detracted too much from the experience. Although, there were a few moments where the story became so telegraphed that you knew exactly when a certain aspect of this tried-and-true storyline would occur; in those moments, the predictability would become a little bit distracting.
While discussing the story, I did have some issues that chipped away at what many believe to be a nearly invincible movie. To be honest, I would have absolutely been enthralled by this movie and potentially heralded it as one of the greatest ever created if Cameron could have left his politics out of the entire affair.
For instance, a major dose of “Go Green” was threaded into the story, to the point that Cameron almost suggests that nature will fight back to defend itself if necessary (a theme borrowed from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”). Then, there’s the anti-military/war in Iraq and Afghanistan agenda that is woven into the obvious comparison of the Na’vi to the Native Americans. We get it, Hollywood doesn’t support the war on terror and for the most part, it appears they don’t support our troops either. What I don’t get, is why these writers and directors think that audiences can’t get enough of these political agendas in the media, so we need it to infiltrate our entertainment as well.
Also, the story does slow down in the middle portion when Jake is learning more about Pandora and the Na’vi. I understand that for the story to work Jake must integrate fully into their society and how they connect with the planet, but I don’t believe this area of the movie needed to drag on as long as it did. After a while, I got the point that he’s learning more and more, so the story could feel free to move along; however, James Cameron just hammers this segment into the audience to an almost exhausting degree. After spending so many years working on the story for this movie, as he waited for technology to catch up to his ideas, one would think that James Cameron could have perfected the script to the point that a lull never occurs. Oh well, it was just a thought.
If the aforementioned part of the story had been shortened to some extent, plus had most of the environmentalist and anti-war propaganda been removed from the movie, the running time could have been trimmed by approximately 30 minutes and been much better for it. But, from Cameron’s perspective, the man has a captive audience so the temptation to force his agendas down their collective throat is too good to pass up.
As for the cast of this movie, every one of them was extremely capable and showed more depth of character than one would typically expect from a science-fiction movie. Of course, to comment on the performances of the CGI characters is to presume that most of the performance was due to the motion capture of the various actors portraying the roles, and not the skill of some computer wizard in an office somewhere. At least, that’s the approach I am taking with this aspect of the film.
In his first predominantly starring role, Sam Worthington (“Terminator: Salvation”) shows more range than I thought him capable of delivering. That’s not to say that he will be winning any Academy Awards for his acting prowess anytime soon, if ever. He does manage to squeeze out a few emotional outbursts that don’t appear forced or uncomfortable for him. The reason this surprised me was because I wasn’t sure if the man could react emotionally. Have you ever seen an interview with this guy? Anyways, even though he is allotted several opportunities to loosen up his typically stoic demeanor; for the most part, Sam appears most comfortable when working in an action sequence that requires little to no emotional output on his part. Let’s face it, the guy knows his limitations, and is wise enough to take roles that strictly showcase his strong points.
As the other main character in the film, and also the member of the cast most worthy of mention, is actress Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”) as Neytiri. Her performance was one of the film’s main keys to success, because aside from Jake, she is the only other character with which the audience really gets a chance to relate. Zoe imbues such heart and warmth into Neytiri that you forget you’re watching a CGI creation rather than a real person. If an actress can bring a nine-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-like alien to life in such a believable way, then she’s done an excellent job in my book.
In the major supporting roles are Stephen Lang (“Tombstone”) and Sigourney Weaver (“Aliens”). Stephen Lang obviously relishes every moment he appears in the film as the scheming Colonel Miles Quaritch. One minute you believe him to be the epitome of the great wartime military leader, but then he’ll show his true malevolent colors as he seeks to destroy every living thing in his way. Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine exudes a no-nonsense, tough as nails attitude that belies her gentler, more caring side that she conveys only amidst the Na’vi. It’s a shame that such a talented actress became so typecast by her role as Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” franchise, because she always manages to deliver top-notch performances and is an actress worthy of more and more quality roles.
Even though this film has become the highest grossing movie of all time, and boasts some of the most impressive visual effects one has ever seen; in the end, the movie is held back from the greatness it could have achieved. While “Avatar” is still a very solid, entertaining movie, James Cameron’s desire to stand on too many soap boxes over the film’s overly long duration causes the movie to fall short of its potential.
“Avatar” is rated PG-13 for violence, language, and sensuality/brief nudity.