Of all the movies I’ve ever watched, only one really stands out in my mind. I remember because I was a kid with the flu, and couldn’t really do anything because I was so sick, so mom pulled out a movie trilogy she’d taped for me and was holding as a surprise for a rainy day. And, well, the rainiest day is the one where you have the flu. The movie was Star Wars.
For three nights, I was glued to the old white couch in the back family room under a quilt, staring with amazed wonderment into the twenty-seven-inch grainy VHS representation for the famed trilogy. This was well before I got the THX Remasters for Christmas, and well before they were re-released with extra pointless footage and Boba Fett whoring the screen at every turn. And even though the last twenty minutes of Return of the Jedi weren’t taped—instead, I got to see the middle of Lawrence of Arabia—I’m told that my response was turning to my mother with open mouthed wonder and thanking her for showing me Star Wars.
Of all the movies I remember seeing since then, of all the movies that I thought were awesome, only Avatar gave me a similar feeling.
Avoiding cable TV, generally being too busy to see movies in finals season, and ignoring most of my classmates’ negativity buzz, I knew almost nothing about Avatar before I went in to see it. Oh, yes, it’s a James Cameron movie, one he’s been trying to make for years, and there’s a rumor that he walked out of Star Wars saying Dang, that’s the movie I wanted to make. So, ignoring most of the negative buzz, and having no idea what the movie was about (something about Ferngully: The Last Rainforest meets Dances With Wolves, in space), I can honestly say I was a mostly blank slate at the time.
The plot is straightforward: Jake Sully, crippled ex-Marine, is sent to the far-distant planet Pandora to replace his dead brother, an operator/handler of the titular avatars. These avatars are hybrid clones mixing human DNA with that of the Na’vi natives, and are handled by the human DNA donor jacking in to the avatar’s mind, essentially making remote-control bodies to interact with the natives. Needless to say, Jake’s quickly enthralled since his brother’s avatar gives him something he doesn’t have—mobility. However, he’s quickly torn between two duties: the scientists are working to get the Na’vi to relocate, while the military wants him in as a scount and infiltrator, because the evil soulless corporation in charge of this operation wants the stupidly named “Unobtanium” under the Na’vi settlement.
From there, Jake (in the avatar body) gets lost in the woods, and is rescued by Neytiri, a female Na’vi—who I should note are big-eyed cat people with tails, who are also bioluminescent blue. This is where the Dances With Wolves comes in; Jake slowly goes native, becoming more enmeshed in the Na’vi culture, and falling for Neytiri, eventually becoming a trusted part of the tribe’s family. Jake slowly loses track of which reality is real, jumping between his body and his brother’s avatar, all while the deadline ticks down and the military contingent starts itching to “forcibly” relocate the Na’vi. There’s a fantastic climactic battle involving the primitive Na’vi taking on some future-tech armed space marines, with the Na’vi riding multicolored flying beasts against an array of realistic-looking near-future VTOLs and mecha. And, of course, the guy gets the girl in the end, though if you didn’t figure that out from the premise and ads you deserve to fall into the pit of Spoilerville.
The strongest part of the film is its production. The flora and fauna of Pandora is amazing; waterfalls flowing from floating mountains, luminescent trees and fungus as far as the eyes can see, primordial creatures which act and look frighteningly real. Even the giant-blue-cat Na’vi are freakishly real, occupying a niche in the uncanny valley which we haven’t really explored before. Even the marine gunships and mechs have a natural sheen that strikes you as tangible, enough to cause any military or mecha buff to have wet dreams over Avatar’s tech. The film is visually stunning, and is probably the most impressive film I’ve ever seen in theaters; knowing that Pandora isn’t real is a hard fact to accept when the photo-realistic CGI is displayed across the screen in front of you.
Choosing actor Sam Worthington as Jake was a good move; while he occasionally jumps accents, hopefully his part in Avatar will put the mire of Terminator: Salvation behind him. Zoë Saldaña is only just recognizable behind the mask of Neytiri and her Na’vi accent, and she really shines in-character; it’s hard to imagine her as anyone else when she’s enmeshed in Neytiri. Sigourney Weaver has a particularly strong character which she handles admirably, though a little reminiscent of her role as Diane Fossey, while Stephan Lang breathes some life into the trigger-happy Colonel Quaritch. I’d have to say that casting Giovanni Ribisi as the corporate overseer was a brilliant move; he carries off the narrow-minded and passive-aggressive persona so well it’s hard to imagine him as Phoebe’s brother on Friends.
Granted, the film isn’t perfect. You’ve seen the plot millions of times before—boy meets girl et al—and heck, a lot of the film flashes back to previous Cameron flicks. I can see where the rumor that he’s been trying to make this film his entire career comes from. There’s a love story ala Titanic, alien entities with a knowledge of peace (and feature running length) ala the director’s cut of The Abyss, and a mecha fight finale ala Aliens, from which Avatar borrows a lot. Avatar’s premise is much like a revamped vision of Aliens’ back-story, a post-Vietnam pastiche of greedy soulless corporations using errant imperialism and profit margins to buy out space marines as corporate muscle and motivate them to attack the oppressed natives. For such a visually unique film, some critics have complained that it doesn’t have enough of a unique plot, which is one of the few valid criticisms. Perhaps the only other one I have is that the otherwise magnificent James Horner soundtrack occasionally has snippets reminiscent of Titanic, perhaps a little too blatant in its attack on our emotions.
But there’s something to be said about staring in wide-eyed wonder at an unpossible world, getting lost in a good old original science-fiction movie, that makes you feel like a kid again. That’s where Avatar’s power shines.
Looking around after actually watching the movie, I found a quote where Cameron explained that the film was influenced by every science-fiction he’d ever read or watched as a kid, and that in particular it was an attempt to revamp the old Barsoomian John Carter of Mars adventure romp. It’s almost a tribute to the science fiction of his youth. And to be honest, I’m glad technology caught up with him so he could make the movie. Watching Avatar is like a kick to the gut, one that kicks you back to your childhood where you marveled at the screen, accepted it as real, and let it continue to jump-start your imagination on the drive home and beyond.