Yes, we reviewed it once, quickly. Now a deeper look.
We’re not sure if we feel envious of James Cameron. The mind behind “Titanic” reaped astounding rewards from the highest grossing film in history, the latest in a series of increasingly large action pictures including “The Terminator” and “True Lies” starring his favorite collaborator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike Schwarzenegger, who seemed to take delight in poking fun of his action movie persona, Cameron’s infatuation with the large, the bombastic and the broad earnest emotion never seemed like a pose, it never commented on itself.
However, in Cameron’s world, Michael Bay never blew up Cuba, Jason Bourne never lost his memory, Batman never employed illegal surveillance and Rambo didn't genuinely fight ethnic cleansing. The grim, post-9/11 world of pessimistic, disillusioned action heroes and politically knotted adventure stories with dubious autocritical ideas of justice never seemed to catch with the director of “The Abyss,” who has instead been holed up in a series of elaborate studios world-building for the sake of “Avatar,” the latest biggest movie ever in history from one of the most prolific filmmakers of the blockbuster canon. And aside from the tech present, showcasing special effects we’ve likely never seen before, the film might as well be just another in a long line of James Cameron action spectacles — success hasn’t changed the man who wrote the book on the modern day blockbuster.
“Avatar” concerns Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-grunt still willing to give his life for global militaristic cause, which involves coming to the planet Pandora to fill the shoes of his dead twin brother. He is valuable not for the shared interest in science he had with his sibling (there is none) but instead in his similar genetic code, the key to embodying a surrogate alien body manipulated for military purposes. The scientists want to use their alien avatars to explore the harsh terrain of the plush tropical planet and learn from the species, a primitive gamine type called the Na’vi. The military are more interested in learning more about the planet’s chief resource of alternative fuel energy, which we’re told could generate untold amounts of capital back on Earth.
Sully, a dumb jock type, is nonetheless seduced by his host body, going from wheelchair bound to Olympic gymnast, and he is intrigued by the physicality of the Na’vi, the animation subtly capturing the differences in body language between each side. The people are expressive mostly by extension of the arms, though it is often an aggressive display as well, as the eager-to-please Jake learns by foolishly extending his hand in a desperate show of ignorant respect. Jake learns the way of the Na’vi and realizes they are not going to evacuate, abandoning a spiritual connection with the land that, through a complex, computer-related explanation, seems like a psychic, spiritual link.
“Avatar” isn’t the thinking man’s action picture. It continues Cameron’s love-hate relationship with the military, where he will condemn what seems like a financially-motivated cause on the part of the industrial complex while still celebrating fetishistic their own combat tech. The vehicle serves as a metaphor for being more ecologically minded, though the film’s thematic underpinning seems to imply if you treat the earth right, it will send gigantic jungle beasts after your enemies in a time of need. "Avatar" serves both purposes — to condemn the blow-em-up attitude of jump-first-ask-later jocks like Jake and Stephen Lang's Colonel Quadritch character (himself a manifestation of jingoistic hoo-rah bullshit), while also sating their thirst for over-the-top action.
Thankfully, “Avatar” delivers in that aspect. The film seems belabored by its plot setup, which it speeds through in order to get to Pandora, but once the main conflict is illuminated, and Jake’s former betrayal evident to the Na’vi, it becomes the war that, surprisingly, the ads are failing to reflect. The third act ramps up the action in a way that delivers a marriage of spectacle and clarity missing from the contemporary action film. Even with the half-hearted and cliched lip service to “shock and awe” (quoted verbatim - who knew mid-twenty-second century scientists were so familiar with early millennial colloquialisms?) “Avatar” remains a satisfying B-picture with minimal pretensions.
As Sully, Sam Worthington doesn’t have much depth worth plunging — at this point, this guy seems like he’s cast in everything because fully animating an action figure is cost-prohibitive. Zoe Saldana fares well enough as his Na’vi lover, though the tech is sound enough that you aren’t sure which parts of her character are actually from a human actor.
Sadly, the villains don’t get much to work with, even with Stephen Lang bringing a layer of genuine gristle to the ornery Quadritch. “Avatar” opts for black and white villainy by refusing to detail the military’s grand plan. We know Pandora features limitless resources that would be beneficial to man in some way, but bureaucrat Giovanni Ribisi, all pie charts, button downs and flow streams, seems only interested in the financial gain. Wouldn’t it have been more compelling has the film explicitly stated that Earth’s resources had eroded to the point where Pandora was our only hope? How much more intriguing and complex would the film be if it’s “villains” were motivated not by greed but towards actually saving a dying Earth? It's a major missed opportunity. Moreover, why do we only gloss over the fact that Sully’s presence is only warranted by the passing of his brother, a scientist who’s genetic code was the key to the avatar program? The idea of intergalactic mining in the future, with twin brothers on different sides of the operation, is strong enough to hold its own narrative — if anything, “Avatar” will spawn very ambitious fan fiction.
The star of “Avatar” isn’t the story or characters as much as its Pandora, which Cameron has designed completely from the ecosystem up. The planet is bursting with plant life and filled with unusual monsters, from a hammer headed rhino hybrid to the robust carrier lizard birds the Na’vi tame to take to the skies. When the planet is under siege in the third act, it’s not any of the flesh and blood characters you’ve invested in as much as this exotic land. It’s this attention to detail and significant scope that suggests after the holidays are over, you’ll likely have visited Pandora more than once. When it comes to big blockbusters, its been a long time since there was one you could settle into and “Avatar” certainly fits the bill. [B]
Yes, we reviewed it once, quickly. Now a deeper look.