The blue brothers
Avatar, science fiction adventure, rated PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, 2.5 chiles
Since being appointed King of theWorld on the Oscar stage in 1998, James Cameron has spent most of his reign away from the public eye. He dabbled in TV, directed documentaries about underwater exploration, and perhaps took some time to swim in his Titanic royalties, throwing gold coins in the air like Scrooge McDuck. But he was also working on Avatar for much of this time. The project had been in the back of his mind since the mid-1990s, waiting for the right technology to arrive so he could bring it to life. Well, the technology is here, and so is the movie.
We’ll start with the bad news. The script and concept actually seem as though they’ve been on the shelf for a bit too long. Even the title seems outdated: in the Internet era, the word avatar, which was once fairly exotic-sounding, has become commonplace in a way that doesn’t scream “science fiction adventure.” The plot centers on a military expedition to the planet of Pandora to retrieve an element called Unobtainium (seriously) from underneath the homes of the indigenous people known as the Na’vi. This isn’t a new story by any means; the creator of Terminator and The Abyss can do better.
Jake Sully (SamWorthington) is a former military man who lost the use of his legs. He’s called to Pandora because his late brother was training to use an avatar— a synthetic body that would allow him to infiltrate the tall, blue Na’vi— and Jake possesses the right DNA to use the same avatar. Jake meets the scientists, led by Grace Augustine (SigourneyWeaver), who are there to study the planet. They drop his consciousness into the avatar, and he ventures into the tribe, where he is accepted and even falls in love (with an alien played by Zoë Saldana). Do you think this will affect his decisions when the military decides it wants to destroy the tribe’s land?
Unfortunately, the movie is stocked with crude caricatures, from the spiritual tribesmen to the kindly scientists, the amoral military aggressor (Stephen Lang), and the slimy corporate weasel (Giovanni Ribisi). It’s true that people like this exist in real life and that these are powerful cinematic archetypes, but you’d hope for a few more curveballs and surprises in a movie that is two hours and 42 minutes long. This is a full hour longer than I would have liked.
But here’s the good news: the movie looks like something that took a decade to conceptualize and create. My God! Pandora is the most fully realized fictional world that’s ever been put up on screen, and easily the best use of 3-D technology. Sure, at times it looks like a black-light poster, a glow-in-the-dark aquarium, or an album cover for a 1970s prog-rock band. But imagine the matte paintings of older movies like King Kong brought to full life. Mountains float in the sky, glowing mushrooms shrink into the ground when touched, and trees give off little jellyfish-like pheromones.
Pandora is populated by rubbery, aggressive animals. Some of them resemble panthers, others warthogs. Cameron gives special attention to the pterodactyl-like birds. The Na’vi use these fluorescent, flying beasts in combat, and it leads to some of the more exciting sequences in the film. I liked the way all of the animals were clearly crafted with highly advanced technology but have the joy of creation that is inherent to older special effects. The scene in which Jake tames his flying beast, for example, reminded me of effects legend Ray Harryhausen’s “giant chicken” scene in the 1961 film Mysterious Island.
The vehicles used by the military in the movie are equally impressive, from the helicopters with propellers on each wing to the giant exoskeleton that is similar to the oneWeaver wielded in Aliens. The remarkable thing about this equipment is not necessarily how it was conceptualized— the Star Wars prequels had excellent concepts, and nobody cared— but how it looks like plausible, well-used equipment, right down to the hinges and joints. The control rooms, with multiple holographic screens, look particularly nifty in 3-D.
The Na’vi are impressively rendered with motion-capture technology and detailed effects. I’ve never seen actors made into alien creatures so effectively. I was able to recognizeWes Studi as Eytukan, the tribe’s patriarch, despite not knowing Studi was even in the film. Somehow, the character looked like Studi and like a giant blue flatnosed alien. I couldn’t say much about his acting, partly because I’m unsure where the actor ended and the computer effects began, and partly because his character was fleshed out better on the computer screen than in the script.
Ultimately, I appreciated the care that went into creating this unique planet much more than the story that is told on the planet. You could tell Cameron was not satisfied to just make spaceships; he also wanted to know how the spaceships worked. And you could tell that the planet’s ecosystem was planned out in great detail (Cameron has revealed that he even worked with botanists on naming the plants). This unprecedented attention to detail is the true achievement of Avatar. I often found myself wishing that we got a David Attenborough-hosted tour of the jungle, rather than the dimestore-novel adventure slapped on a $300-million (or thereabouts) backdrop.
My aim is blue: Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana
Semper CGI: Stephen Lang