For a film to last for over 160 minutes, and still be entertaining for its audience, it needs to do many things right. One of the most important of these things, in my mind, is to immerse the audience in both the story, and in the world the narrative takes place in.
If you didn’t know, James Cameron’s Avatar does last over 160 minutes. It also accomplishes this immersion, just like the narrative forces its main character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). In the film, he takes place in a program called the “Avatar Program”, allowing the paraplegic former marine a chance to move around freely once again. He is to become a Na’vi (the name of the humanoid species native to the planet of Pandora) and get to know them. He must learn to act just like one, and become accepted into their group. Only then will he let them know what his ulterior motives are.
See, the Avatar Program is something that humans have created to get to know the Na’vi. This is true, but the why they want to do this is what is interesting. There is a resource on Pandora that the humans want; a deposit of it is under the Na’vi’s home. The humans want someone to get to know the Na’vi, so that he can convince them to leave. If this doesn’t happen, an all-out war will commence, something that the humans don’t want. Bad press is something that they seemingly don’t want, and killing off natives is certainly bad press.
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Avatar is a sci-fi film, taking place far away from Earth? Set in 2154, Avatar does take place entirely away from our current home planet. Earth has apparently not been doing well, and the humans are looking elsewhere for resources. The resource found on Pandora apparently sells for a large amount of money, (something like $20 million per kilogram).
The first half or so of Avatar focuses on Jake’s attempts to fit in with the Na’vi, and become engrossed in their culture. We do the same, and it feels like his avatar could just as easily be ours. We learn how the Na’vi culture acts, what rituals they have, and how much they actually know about the humans. They have their own language–although they speak English to varying degrees–and we get to learn parts of it. They are smart, and aside from minor native traditions that they have, they could easily be human.
Jake sees this too, and quickly bonds with the first Na’vi that he meets. Her name is Neytiri, (motion captured and voiced by Zoe Saldana), and she is the one who ends up finding Jake. She and Jake end up having a positive relationship, (for the most part, nothing’s perfect), and the two become close, with her teaching him all of the Na’vi’s traditions and nuances.
This eats up about an hour and a half. The part of the film deals with the humans finally growing tired of waiting and deciding to wage full-on war with the Na’vi. This ultimately ends in a grand battle, filled with miniature dragons, mechs, airplanes and incredible amounts of death on both sides.
For those who pay close attention, yes, I did just give away the majority of Avatar‘s story. Despite this, I haven’t really told you anything important about it. It’s something that you can’t just read about and really understand, instead, it is something you want to experience. It’s a simple story, but one that is really well-told, and has enough depth to keep you interested throughout.
However, there are times in which you will stop caring about it, and in these cases, the visuals of the film take up the reigns. Avatar is visually stunning, with almost every scene that takes place in the forest on Pandora ready to make your jaw drop. In fact, some scenes seem to bank solely on this fact, having little to do with story, but only included to make you wish you could visit Pandora.
The scenery looks great, and so do the Na’vi. In this regard, Cameron shows us that motion capture technology can be incredibly realistic, and that it all depends on how long you take on making the final product. In the past, there has been some shoddy motion capture scenes, (see Resident Evil: Degeneration for a good example of this), but here, the Na’vi look and feel life-like. It’s almost like they could exist, despite being blue and standing approximately 10 feet tall.
The reason that they feel so realistic–even more so than because of the excellent animation job–is because of the world that James Cameron built for the film. The Na’vi have their own language, Pandora has its own feel, and everything looks like it could exist, even if it looks completely different and farfetched from what we see on Earth. The level of detail put in is phenomenal, and because of this work, Pandora feels real.
There are only two main problems that Avatar has. The first comes in its finale. With about 15 minutes left, things start to go from “slightly over-the-top” to “absurd”. I found myself laughing at almost everything that happened, from ever-growing number of coincidences to the way that the main villain, (who I won’t disclose), just doesn’t seem to want to die. It was laughable, and didn’t accomplish the emotional depth that the scene wanted to. Things are not pleasant, but having this hilarity thrown in makes it hard to feel sad for the events going around it. I wanted to care, but then I watched what was happening on-screen, instead of thinking about what was happening off it, and I just started to laugh.
The second issue comes from a lack of fear that I had for the characters. Even if situations appeared perilous, there was always a feeling that things would fix themselves by the end of the scene. While this wasn’t always the case–things don’t work out a few times, in fact–that feeling was still there. I still didn’t feel like there was any fear to be had, even when there most certainly was. It’s an odd feeling to have, and was unlikely the one that the Avatar was trying to make me feel.
But these two issues don’t really matter all that much to me. In my mind, Avatar was definitely worth a watch, possibly even another in the very near future. Its story isn’t complex, but it doesn’t really need to be. The film is all about its visuals, which are stunning. Even when nothing much is happening on-screen, you will still want to look just because of how beautiful the scenery is. Also impressive is how well the Na’vi are animated, proving that good motion capture is now only limited by time commitment, not by technology. Avatar is a really solid film, one which kept me entertained despite having a slightly overlong runtime. If you are one of the few, (like I was), who have yet to see Avatar, do yourself a favor and do so. You’ll likely be glad you did.