Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar: 8 out of 10 (light spoilage)

This review will be posted also on IMDb under the name 'j1stoner"; my ratings of movies and a few other reviews can be found at this address:

James Cameron's Avatar is a landmark film, a fully-realized and brilliantly-executed vision of complexity and passion. It promises to be a runaway hit, a strong contender for the Best Picture Oscar, and a point of reference for movies of its genre--special effects-driven sci-fi epic thrillers--for decades to come.

Avatar is a story set in the future (the date shown is 2154, a point to which I'll return). At any rate, it's close enough to the present that people are more or less the same in their motivations and ways of thinking and acting, but they have greater technological capability, including suspended hibernation and interstellar travel. Our hero is a Marine veteran named Jake Sully who's lost use of his legs, but is recruited nevertheless to accompany a "scientific" expedition on an alien planet, populated by 10-foot tall blue humanoids, who live in a forest world (called "Pandora") which the human invaders covet. Human society's imminent collapse due to overpopulation and environmental degradation has sent our descendants on a mission of colonization and exploitation.

I am no technical expert and am certainly not qualified to explain how the movie was filmed. Certainly computer-generated imagery is central to the many scenes set in Pandora, but that doesn't begin to describe the various effects, or how it affects us. I will say that the use of 3D is better, and more meaningful, than I have ever seen.

The key leap of faith for our story is the development of a hybrid of human and "Ni'va" (the Pandorans), which the human can mentally inhabit through some sort of sleep in a chamber. Our hero, in his "avatar" hybrid form, accidentally ends up with the locals, becomes accepted by them, and ultimately is brought into their society as a full member--just in time for the onslaught by the human invaders who want their land. Between sessions, Jake Sully comes out of his dream state and reports on what he is learning.

The beauty of the film is in the sequences in which Jake, in his "avatar" persona among the Ni'va, experiences their world and learns their customs. Their world is unsettling and dangerous to us, but once Jake gets used to his new, blue body and its powers, we get used to the idea that he isn't going to fall to his death. He comes to love his adopted Pandorans (and one in particular), to the point that when the crunch comes, he finds a way to stand with them and help rally them in their defense.

This movie is unique in its execution (the best effect is probably the 3D computer screens used for Jake's latter-day YouTube video logs), but the story has several identifiable antecedents. In the depiction of human aggression and ruthlessness, of course one thinks of the history with Native Americans, our extermination of many species, and even perhaps our involvement with exotic earthbound populations like the Vietnamese or Afghans. There are definite parallels with Cameron's own "Aliens", like the immoral businessman who sells his soul for a buck--and the casting coup of Sigourney Weaver in the role of a linguist/scientist who tried to understand and help the Ni'va. I saw elements of "Dune" in the transformation of our hero into a near-deity, and the strong culture of the natives (and saw at the film's end that the production company is called "Dune Entertainment"). A bit more obscure, but even closer parallel, is to a classic sci-fi novella from the '70's by Ursula LeGuin called "The Word for World is Forest", which I suggest for some closer study. I wonder whether Cameron himself knows the story and acknowledges the many similarities...

So why do I rate this movie an 8 out of 10, if I acknowledge its extraordinary quality for a movie of its type? My objections are three:
1) There is a fundamental flaw around the date of the story; it is necessary to make it soon, in order to make the existential dilemma of this human society believable, but it is impossible to believe that we can achieve interstellar travel and some of the other technological marvels so soon. One could suggest that people could travel in suspended animation for hundreds of years to get to another solar system, and that they could have continuity in their way of thought until arrival, but not that the social dilemma could be so protracted that the voyage would have immediate value (nor would they have the short-term profit motives that are cited).
2) The love story between Jake/Avatar and the Ni'va woman is not really necessary for the plot, nor is it totally believable. I see it as being a way to make the movie more palatable for women, a very successful device he used in "Titanic" to great commercial effect.
3) The view of humanity is so unredeemably negative that it leaves a bad taste. Another reference one cannot avoid is to "The Lord of the Rings" (large-scale special effect fantasy epic), but here we are the Dark Lord, the agents of Mordor. Let's hope that dystopian messages of this sort inform humanity when we finally go a-calling into the galaxy.

The ending, I'll just say, is satisfying--if we buy into the story--and "eye-opening".

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