Avatar is a movie about manifest destiny and second thoughts, a sweeping epic retelling of a classic theme about a soldier "going native" as he learns that the enemy isn't a faceless monster, but an intelligent race. The most obvious parallel is Dances with Wolves, but director James Cameron has taken the basic storyline and created a visual masterpiece that's almost a perfect sci-fi film.
Avatar takes place 150 years in the future, on the far distant planet of Pandora, where everything on the planet and all its inhabitants are connected through energy fields. The local inhabitants, the Na'vi, are a race of ten-foot tall hunter/gatherers modeled after Native American tribes. The Na'vi commune with nature, honor the spirit of animals they kill and worship the great Home Tree.
The film follows Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington), a Marine with a disabling spinal injury that's left him wheelchair-bound. He is shanghied into replacing his recently killed scientist brother on a mission to Pandora: he's a perfect genetic match, though he's clearly not any sort of scientist. Pandora is of great interest to humans not because it's a lush, gorgeous planet but because it's the primary source of the fantastically valuable Unobtanium: if the planet has to be destroyed to successfully mine this substance, well, so be it. Human need is more important than the rights of the natives.
Jake is given an avatar, a Na'vi body that is a mix of Na'vi and his own DNA, a ten foot tall creature within which his consciousness resides, a new, alien, but thrillingly functional body. His mission: to get the Na'vi to relocate their home before the company destroys it to access the richest vein of Unobtanium on the planet. Problem is, he meets Na'vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and falls in love...
Avatar is not a masterpiece of cinema, the story is entirely too predictable. But it's still well worth seeing because visually, Cameron has created an entirely new type of film, a completely immersive alien world that is both magical and frightening, along with an alien race that's sufficiently humanoid that we can empathize with their passions while being repelled by their primitive instincts. It's one of the few films where I'll strongly recommend you see it in the movie theater, in 3D. You'll be amazed.
The Pandorian society that Cameron's team have invented is truly alien in some aspects, while reassuringly human in others. For example, they don't have horses but instead each Na'vi warrior has a Banshee, a pterodactyl-like flying creature. They symbiotically connect with their Banshees via a nerve coupling that literally has the Na'vi plugging their pony tail into a waving antenna of the creature. This same literal extension of their nervous system also lets the Na'vi connect directly with the energy system -- and collective memory -- of the planet itself.
The Pandorian mining efforts are run by a cliché evil corporation called Resources Developmental Administration, run by two-dimensional bean counter Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). His right-hand man is the tough-as-nails Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch is the main antagonist in the film, a marine who embodies the worst of human instincts and behaviors. At one point he refers to an all-out war that he's going to unleash on the Na'vi by promising to "blast a crater in their racial memory."
The Corporation troops arrive, a clear nod to Apocalypse Now
Sully starts out following Quaritch's orders to infiltrate the Na'vi and supply them with intelligence about fortifications and the layout of the Home Tree area. As an avatar, however, he falls under the supervision of botanist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and works closely with his friend Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore). Spellman is a likable character who kept reminding me of Bob Denver's title role in the TV series Gilligan's Island, of all things.
Weaver has a great role in this film, but it's also a clear reprise of her pivotal role as the tougher-than-the-alien Ellen Ripley in the Alien films (which is no surprise: James Cameron directed Aliens, the second film of the series). Still, in an industry awash in fragile female and overly masculine male roles, both Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez (as Trudy Chacon, marine pilot) are strong additions to the cast and story.
The most striking thing about Avatar are the visuals, for which Cameron's team invented an entirely new way of filming that overlaid live computer graphics as the camera rolled. With a budget reputedly north of $250 million, it's also one of the most expensive films ever made. Everyone was skeptical about Cameron's Titanic when released because it too had a phenomenal (at the time) shooting budget, but audiences loved the film and helped propel it to astonishing box office heights.
At almost three hours running time, it's also a long movie, but I never felt it drag when watching the film: there's a lot of story to cover and a whole lot of exterior shots to stitch into the narrative. As is the modern style, the Director's Cut will no doubt add 15-20 minutes of footage and give us a hint of the hundreds of hours of hybrid CG/live film that were produced along the way.
That's why it's too bad that the storyline itself is so darn predictable: Avatar is a great sci-fi film that could have been an amazing epic story, but ends up being an astonishing technical achievement, all frosting and precious little cake. Very worth seeing in a theater, in 3D, but it could have truly been a crowning cinematic achievement with a bit more time and effort devoted to story along the way.