Avatar (2009) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sensuality, language, and some smoking
Running time: 162

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rap
James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Review published December 31, 2009

The year is 2154.  A powerful Earth corporation discovers and determines to mine a rare and exceedingly valuable metal on a habitable moon called Pandora in a distant planetary system.  The only obstacle in their way is that this ore lies beneath a mammoth, ancient tree that serves as the home of an indigenous blue, ten-foot-tall humanoid race called the Na'vi.  The solution is to have the Na'vi move, hopefully voluntarily, but by deadly brute force if necessary.  The military have moved in and are monitoring the work of the corporation's scientists who are using a new technology that allows the genomes of humans and Na'vi to be spliced together, grown and controlled by a distant human host, allowing these "avatars" to move, breathe, and communicate in their new Na'vi-like bodies in an effort to get closer to the native race, learning their customs, find out what they can about the whereabouts of more resources, and also hoping they can resolve things peacefully by convincing them to leave the area.

Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation, The Great Raid) stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine called to duty once again when his twin brother is slain in the effort of assisting the scientific wing of the giant corporation.  As Jake already share his DNA with his deceased twin, he is able to control the avatar already created for him, saving a great deal of time and money.  While on the planet, Jake discovers that it can be a very dangerous place.  He's separated from the scientists and is about to fall prey to the local predators when he is rescued by Neytiri (voiced and performance acted by Zoe Saldana, Star Trek), a Na'vi princess, who admires his fearlessness.  She brings Jake to her tribe for judgment, and he is slowly adopted by them, learning their customs and ways, all the while providing intel to the security wing of the operation.  However, as Jake spends more time with the Na'vi, the more his is conflicted about his mission and the right for the corporation to destroy the livelihood of this spiritual and harmonious people, who seemed primed for a slaughter by the avaricious human army poised to strike to get to that ore.

Fifteen years in the making, writer-director James Cameron, in his first fictional film since his mega-blockbuster Titanic, shows us that patience is a virtue, as he waited until the right technological advancements for him to be able to finally bring his vision to life.  When your last film brought in nearly a billion dollars worldwide, you have the clout to deliver a film with an estimated $300 million budget, and there will be few who, after seeing the finished film, will wonder where the money went.  It is a stunningly realized film in every technical department, utilizing a state-of-the-art motion capture system that can simulate every movement of the real-life actors, including facial expressions, to give the most realistic 3D computer animated characters produced to date. 

For his story, Cameron borrows from a variety of sources, some from epic tales of old, classic science fiction stories (the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs most notably), others from more recent fantasy and adventure films (The Emerald Forest, A Man Called Horse, Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, and the Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies), to come up with this effective hybrid.  It's not an uncommon theme in science fiction these days, as the very similarly premised animated feature, Battle for Terra, came out just two years prior.

Cameron may borrow many of the elements that the familiar story is comprised of, but it's to Cameron's credit that he utilizes the best of them to weave his own tale.  I think the budget, the hype, the fact that it has been such a long time in the making, and that his last film is among the biggest winners in Oscar history (not to mention the highest grossing film ever), will have some viewers expecting a masterpiece.  I feel the need to caution viewers to not expect that a film which contains such cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking special effects will also follow suit with cutting-edge narrative explorations and groundbreaking science fiction premises.  This is an standalone epic in many ways, but one can easily dissect the film down to find other well-known sources that inspired Cameron. 

Expectations may be high, but one should remember that nearly all great science fiction and fantasy works are also an amalgamation of other genres and influences, from the Samurai/Western/Flash Gordon film origins of Star Wars, the noir-ish 1940s detective stories of Blade Runner, and the Harlan Ellison influence of Cameron's own Terminator series.  Each has elements that sets it apart from the rest form a technological advancement standpoint and setting, but, at their core, they are told in ways similar to influential works of the past.

Some readers out there will feel I'm being generous in doling out such a high rating to Avatar.  To them, I say this: when other critics and fans alike are dishing out orgasmic, shrieking raves to the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Harry Potter, or even the Lord of the Rings films (yes, I went there), I should definitely not feel even  the slightest twinge of guilt in my assessment that Avatar is a long overdue step in the right direction when it comes to blockbusters crafted to entertain and inspire thought in equal proportions. 

One of the refreshing aspects of Avatar is that, while it clearly has villains, at no time are they ever presented as evil for evil's sake.  In their minds, they are doing what they are told to do, whether by their bosses (or shareholders) in their corporation, or because they are following orders given to them by their commanding officers.  They also feel like they've given their eventual opponents every opportunity to remove themselves from the situation peacefully.  They do this willfully ignorant of just what's down there, not knowing about what motivates the Na'vi or how they will destroy the ecological balance of things in their pursuit of further wealth and industry.

We may root against certain characters because they are the aggressors, but the real villains happen to be the military-industrial complex of today.  While Cameron may coat his film with the best special effects that money can by, at its heart, this is a message film that rails completely against what's going on in the world of the 21st Century, where nature has been deemed unnecessary in the pursuit of riches, wars are being waged solely for corporate wealth and expansion, and the military is used not so much as a tool for peace keeping, but to ensure the safety and sanctity of the progress of those with money and power to accumulate more, thanks to the politicians who remains firmly ensconced in corporate pockets. 

The Na'vi does not represent an alien species.  They represent our own, the human species, as it once existed -- the way we were before the mining of ores and minerals from the Earth to produce weapons like swords, guns, tanks, jets, and nuclear bombs.  They represent a people who took only what they needed from nature and gave to each other in the community, rather than blow the tops off mountains, pave over vast expanses of forests, and pump pollutants into the atmosphere that may ultimately prove our own undoing, and we, in the pursuit of dollars, riches, and our own lazy, comfortable existence, do nothing about it, because we value, above all else, the wealth that can be made through the destruction of nature and peoples not like us more than we value people and nature themselves. We are, after all, the species that would poison our own babies' milk with industrial chemicals in order to keep production numbers up.

When Jake Sully turns to defend the Na'vi, therefore, he does not do so just because he doesn't want those he has come to regard his family to be harmed.  Rather, he does so to see that what happened to his own planet does not happen again on another.  No more destruction of beauty for charred earth and mining strips, no more wiping out of entire species for their horns, tusks or hides.  Sully sees, in this version of the nature vs. industry debate that industry is the losing side, as there is nothing to be gained by continued destruction and death in exchange for dollars and dividends.  Jake is a soldier who does turn against his fellow soldiers, and a traitor by most accounts, but, in his heart and mind, he is vindicated because being a soldier doesn't mean anything to him if the cause is not just.   They are following orders, yes, but orders dictated, not in the interest of national defense or a global good, but solely for the profit of those who hold stocks.  It is humans who are the aggressors, the ones who murder and pillage those who who've done nothing to provoke and who cannot defend themselves merely because they possess that which a few greedy money men want.

If there's anything that is unjust about the scenario, both in the real world and in Avatar, it's that those who are slaughtered, even on the invading side, are not the ones responsible.  They are not the corporate big-wigs spending large sums of money to get those who are favorable to their interests elected.  They are not the politicians who make the policy decisions against the interests of ordinary people in order to secure contracts and growth to to the private industries that support them.  They are not the news organizations run by mega-corporations used to misinform the public and allowing the atmosphere to facilitate voting for officials and ballot measures contrary to their own interests.  No, the only ones to die, in the real world and in Avatar, are those innocents who seek to preserve their lives and those young men and women who have no choice in the matter but to follow orders without question of morality.

Diatribe over, but I'll leave you with this.  For those who think I'm being generous in my assessment of Avatar, think back and try to find any film made with a budget over $150 million dollars that could produce such an impassioned reflection and response in its viewers.  Perhaps you don't care about political themes in your entertainment, but as for me, I'll gladly stand up for films like Avatar and Wall-E over the  $175 million dollars recently given to films in the Rush Hour or The Mummy series.  Cameron is an action filmmaker first and foremost, but he isn't new to carrying messages in his films, particularly critical of the evils of corporations run amok, as evidenced by The Terminator, T2, and Aliens

But don't just watch Avatar for its philosophical themes.  Don't just watch it because it is chock full of eye candy explosions in crisp 3D.  Watch it because it is a gorgeously presented, pulse-pounding, intelligent, well acted, and exhilarating action/adventure of the highest order.  But above all else, watch it because it is one of the very few truly great science fiction or action films made in this progressively pathetic era of dumbed-down B-movie Hollywood blockbusters given A-list budgets. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo