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Avatar

starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver
written & directed by James Cameron
Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
94%

Paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Worthington) arrives on the alien world of Pandora to join an ongoing military/industrial operation. As a genetic match for his dead twin’s “avatar,” a genetically-created alien body remotely controlled by a human operator, Jake will be part of a team of scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), whose task is to learn about the native Na’vi race inhabiting the planet. Secretly recruited by the ruthless Colonel Quaritch to spy on the aliens, Jake’s loyalties are soon divided after he is saved by Neytiri (Saldana), the daughter of a Na’vi clan leader, and begins to gain acceptance in the alien society.

To call Avatar a thinly-veiled parable about European exploitation of Native Americans, told by way of movies like Disney’s Pocahontas, would be misleading; the word “veiled” implies a cover-up, while Avatar wears its allusions (cliches?) proudly and openly (even as it subtly rewrites a few). Anyone who has seen a historical film involving Native Americans in the last twenty years will immediately recognize that Avatar isn’t going to win any awards for telling an original or unpredictable story. Nevertheless, this is arguably the most epic and immersive big-budget attempt at world-building since the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was released six years ago, and it compellingly demonstrates a large step forward for digital filmmaking technology. And it’s pretty darned entertaining, to boot.

There are plenty of complaints one could register about this film. In some ways it even invites them. But all of them miss the point. Picking on this movie’s thin plotting and flat character development is kind of like being a passenger on the first commercial airplane flight and complaining that the seats are too hard and the in-flight peanuts are too salty. You’re flying through the air in a giant man-made bird. How about taking a look out the window? James Cameron has literally dreamed up an entire planet, populated with fully-realized landscapes, flora, and fauna out of his imagination, and then invented the technology that would allow him to take the rest of us for a visit. I’m willing to forgive him for skimping a little on the story he tells us when we get there.

One of the amazing things about Avatar is its self-confidence and its complete commitment to the world of Pandora. A lesser artist, or one intent on cutting corners, would cover up imperfections with shadows, long shots, and quick cuts. Cameron, however, allows us time and time again to examine Pandora’s exotic inhabitants in well-lit, tight close-ups, and sometimes even in slow-motion. This is the work of a director who has nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. He knows that audiences will want a good look, and he is more than happy to oblige. Similarly, Jake Sully, unlike many fantasy and science fiction heroes who find themselves in strange and unusual environments, doesn’t take his surroundings for granted. He gawks and gapes, and exhibits an infectious joy in the environment surrounding him. Pandora is unlike anything he has ever seen or experienced, and the same goes for the audience.

These scenes are the film’s greatest strength, fitting right in with other memorable moments of technologically-created wonders like the first glimpse of Steven Spielberg’s digitally-created dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, bullet-time in The Matrix, and the giant clashing armies of Lord of the Rings. To that list I would add Jake’s first flight on his “Banshee” mount, a scene that is glorious, exhilarating, and totally convincing. The high-flying action in Avatar is so immersive, especially in 3D, that it may invoke mild cases of acrophobia.

By the time Avatar moves into its third act, the storytelling is on autopilot. The movie delivers an action-packed final battle that perfunctorily hits all of the notes I came in expecting it to hit. But, if there are no surprises to be had in the final hour, it still can’t be denied that the movie delivered exactly what I paid to see. The finale is no less thrilling for being predictable. In fact, that description sums up perfectly my oxymoronic take-home feeling about this film as a whole.

Yet, despite the shallowness of the storytelling, audiences attuned to theological concepts will note a strange affinity between Avatar and the writings of the Apostle Paul. It would be a mistake to read too deeply, but as Jake slowly begins to put aside his old, crippled human body and take on the form of the graceful, athletic Na’vi, he also begins to reject his human vices (selfishness, dishonesty, pride) in favor of Na’vi virtues (compassion, respect, community). All of this puts me in mind of Paul’s advice to the early church to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10). Audiences will come to Avatar to experience the adventure and the excitement of visiting another world, but they may just leave with more than they expected.

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~ by Jared on December 18, 2009.

4 Responses to “Avatar”

  1. Great review, Jared (I especially liked your first flight analogy).

    I saw the movie yesterday and felt exactly as you did. I described the story to my mother as a combination of Disney’s Pocahantas, The Last Samurai, and Ferngully the Last Rainforest, but the sensory experience of the film compensated for any deficiencies in the story.

    And I felt that, although the film (especially the last act) was extremely predictable, Cameron made me care enough about the characters that it earned the emotional payoff of the finale. In the end it was an amazing cinematic experience.

  2. Fantastic review. I saw Avatar in 2D a few days ago, and thought it was one of the most impressive pieces of film-making I’ve seen in the last few years. There were many moments of the film that had my jaw agape, but the flight scene in particular was my favourite – the sight of Jake’s infectious grin and look of complete exhilaration left me walking out of the cinema lost in completely awe at the world that James Cameron has created. Definitely going to be seeing the 3D version.

  3. “Picking on this movie’s thin plotting and flat character development is kind of like being a passenger on the first commercial airplane flight and complaining that the seats are too hard and the in-flight peanuts are too salty.” What is a movie without plot and character development? It just becomes a visual experience.

  4. That’s a good question, and a perfectly valid one. Let me see if I can attempt a satisfactory answer. Although cinema is primarily thought of as a narrative art form (and, certainly, I tend to prefer films with a compelling story), it is also very much an aesthetic art form.

    At first, of course, movies never told a story. They were simply a novelty: an early filmmaker would set up a camera on a city street, say, and film people going about their business. Audiences were fascinated by this display of an exciting new technology. Now, films that eschew narrative entirely are rare, and are generally considered experimental or avant-garde . . . but every now and then, one does. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this are segments of Disney films like “Fantasia” and “Make Mine Music,” which contain attempts to match totally abstract animated sequences to the “mood” of a particular musical piece.

    There are also “art films” (many of them foreign) where very little seems to happen (relative to the runtime), but in which we are treated to gorgeous, lingering feasts of cinematographic skill. The incredible opening of “Silent Light” comes to mind: A single, unbroken shot of the sun rising which lasts for about five minutes. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, but has nothing to do (directly) with the story or the characters. These are amazing works of art, wonderful to behold . . . but they might just put you to sleep.

    Now, what does all this have to do with “Avatar” . . .? Maybe nothing, and I certainly understand if someone leaves the theater after the movie completely unsatisfied with its story. I guess the point I was trying to make is that “Avatar” *is* meant to be enjoyed as a visual experience, showcasing an immensely creative visual spectacle that is the result of an imagination set free by a technology so cutting-edge most of us weren’t aware it was possible yet. And there’s nothing inherently uncinematic about that, to my mind. “Avatar” is an example of pure spectacle, and as spectacle I thought it was an immensely satisfying and enjoyable experience (whatever its shortcomings).

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