In essence "Avatar" is a simple story, a mix of science & fantasy with even a little bit of pagan-style religion thrown in, a kind of rationalised version of Gaia, with a disabled ex-marine "grunt" (Jake Sully) being asked to control an avatar. The avatar is a remotely controllable alien life-form custom grown from combined human and alien DNA for his vastly more qualified twin-brother who died back on Earth. Sully, a marine through & through, is put centre stage in this tale of two-worlds, of two species, of technology vs nature and of mercenary supported corporates vs soon-to-be-oppressed Na'vi, the giant-like aliens native to Pandora, the world where the story takes place. Interwoven into this tale, much like "Dances With Wolves", "Titanic" and "The Last Samurai", is a love story across two very different cultures. Though much of the cinematography is based on real life actors and animals, the is so highly digitised it effectively becomes mostly (ninety percent or more) animation and, though there were times it felt a little like a seriously glitzed up console game, it is a tribute to Cameron's team that the end result is an immersive and totally believable fantasy world.
Most of the reviews I've read were positive although one, by The Guardian's Catherine Shoard, appeared to hate it almost from the first, referring cynically and dismissively to other vastly more positive reviews. According to Shoard, the film is set on an "intergalactic spaceship" and, quite apart from her inability to discern the difference between a base and a spaceship, the more I read of Ms Shoard's awful review, the more convinced I was she hadn't actually seen the film. That said, as I learned from some of my fellow atheist's reviews of Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ", actually seeing a film isn't necessary to give an informed critique of it [SLAPS FOREHEAD]. Even some of the positive reviews were strange, with one posted at TripSister, getting numerous things wrong, managing to figure the humans were there to strip mine "unobtanium" and that they were the bad guys within five minutes which was clever considering that wasn't made plain until a good twenty minutes in ... that said, it was clear they'd actually watched the movie.
I've always loved stuff about different cultures; I'm unashamedly a techno-geek and a romantic both in the wider sense of the word and in the sense of actually liking what many other men appears to despise i.e. romances and romantic comedies. I'll say from the very start, I absolutely loved it, from the very first scene to the very last … truly awesome!
The movie is undoubtedly derivative … on one level it is much like "Dances With Wolves", "The Last Samurai", on another more like "Pearl Harbour" and, as I say above (the obvious comparison, the one everyone makes), "Titanic" and, on yet another, it's a huge movie game. But it works ... there is so much attention to detail that if you let yourself go (something that, as a long-time aficionado of science fiction, I have little problem doing), if you make that trade with the director and step up into his universe, "Avatar" is a film that rewards you and works very, very well.
On the surface "Avatar" is a simple enough tale of a future perhaps a hundred and fifty years in advance of our own. A number of references are made to the situation existing on Earth and it seems we've more-or-less killed our own planet and subverted its resources to a technological/mechanistic way of life losing completely the idyllic life of old in the process ... I'm no tree-hugger but I have some empathy with this point of view. The film opens to a monologue from the lead character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine. The standard and semi-extended film versions quickly switch to a view of him and others being awoken from over five years of hibernation and subsequently of a gas giant planet with an Earth-like moon and a beautiful spidery space craft in the foreground. A massive shuttle craft departs the ship, dives towards the moon ... it was at this point the film "got me" when I saw it for the first time as it cleverly switched from a funeral scene to one of the shuttle diving sharply towards the moon below. The shuttle enters the atmosphere and skims over the forest surface to a huge mine and militarised base; "Hell's Gate", a mechanised blister on the face of an otherwise unspoiled planet where it lands and Sully, last to disembark, gets to see the world of Pandora for his first time. We follow his introduction to various pivotal human characters including:
Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang):
A hard-ass ex-military commander whose only goal is to achieve the corporate goal with scant regard for the consequences to Pandora or it's natives.
A hard-ass scientist who smokes whilst she's working yet is clearly committed to both science and to communicating with the native population of Na'vi.
Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Ripley in "Alien", "Aliens" etc.):
Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore):
A scientist and experienced avatar driver who travelled to Pandora on the same ship as Jake Sulley.
Ex-military chopper pilot now employed by the company primarily on armed science missions.
The Pandora missions leading corporate "Governor".
More importantly we are introduced to the lab environment and Sully's Avatar, a remote controllable ten-foot, cat-like alien bred from human and alien DNA to communicate with (or infiltrate) the native aliens called the "Na'vi" (which translates to "The People"). When I say remote control, bear in mind that we're not talking screen and keyboard, we're talking about full sensory connection as the human "avatar drivers" control their hosts from within sophisticated links, pods that envelop them whilst they are immersed.
Breaking all the rules (as anyone would guess the untrained marine would) Sully rapidly adopts his new alien role and does the things his broken body can no longer do ... running, jumping, fighting etc. and is subsequently sent on a mission with orders to shut up and guard. Sully, unlike his deceased and far better educated twin brother, knowing very little about the Na'vi, can't speak the native language and it is precisely that ignorance combined with him being the first "Sky People" warrior the Na'vi have ever met that stops them killing his avatar. Moreover, it provides the reason that puts Sully in the unique position of learning about them after he gets separated at night from the rest of his team and meets the final key characters, including:
Na'vi & Allies
A disabled ex-marine who takes the place of his murdered twin brother as an avatar driver.
Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington):
Neytiri te Tskaha Mo'at'ite (Zoe Suldana, Uhuru in the "Star Trek" reboots):
Daughter of Eytukan (Olo'eyktan) and Mo'at (Tsahik) of The Omaticaya clan.
The Omaticaya clan's finest warrior, he would normally be expected to mate with the clan's future Tsahik (spiritual leader), Neytiri.
Tsu'tey te Rongloa Ateyitan (Laz Alonso):
Eytukan (Wes Studi):
The leader of the Omaticaya clan, mate of Mo'at and the father of Neytiri.
The Tsahik (spiritual leader) of the Omaticaya clan, mate to Eytukan and mother of Neytiri.
Mo'at (CCH Pounder):
The plot of the film is a simple yet engaging tale of "evil invaders versus peaceful natives" told from Jake's perspective. In many ways it enshrines nature over technology, though not in a standard "Gaian" fashion since Cameron has effectively re-invented the Gaia "theory" in a way that makes it near believable. The evil invaders are not humans per se or even the military (the Na'vi are in many ways equally militaristic) but, a theme often followed by Cameron's films, corporations backed by mercenaries and the film entwines that with a clash of cultures, a rite of passage theme and an interspecies romance. The central plot is highly derivative but that is true of many films (indeed probably true of many more films than those same critics would like to admit) but Cameron used technology to the best effect, even developing new technologies of his own, to create a believable universe in which to tell his story. There were moments that were entirely predictable but the film is so gorgeous to look at, so immersive an experience there were still incredible moments of suspense and it remained beautifully directed. Cameron, both writer and director, wrote the film in his 30's and, for the most part, chose a relatively unknown set of actors (Sigourney Weaver is the most famous) which I assume must have made for a cheaper film.
The truly ground-breaking aspect of this film centres around Cameron's breakthrough in CG animation. He used state-of-the-art effects but his team had to design new technologies in order to achieve the things he wanted and in doing so he found ways to near flawlessly merge humans and their expressions, into what are essentially animated characters. Similar techniques have been tried before, in many cases detracting from the film or replacing it with effects, so the real question becomes did it pay off? In a word, yes! Many reviews, perhaps quite rightly, focus on the film's effects because maybe ninety percent of the film is animated and it achieves what I would have previously thought impossible. When I was watching "Avatar", I was there, in person, on Pandora … I was Na'vi.
The background of the film is one we've seen far too much of today, that of human self-importance, militaristic endeavour & corporate greed (the latter a favoured subject for Cameron), in effect the need for resources (as well as profit) has driven humans to the stars and Pandora has a mineral given the placeholder name (something humans have often done) of "unobtanium", a superconducting mineral that humans need and that exists in real quantity only on Pandora. With a corporate mercenary army backing up human greed and colonialism the focus is on making the native Na'vi (whose arboreal home sits on the largest unobtanium deposit within 200 hundred kilometres of the base) relocate by diplomatic means (offering them a large enough carrot) or by exposing their weaknesses and forcing them to move (a big enough stick). The result is "Dances With Wolves" meets "The Last Samurai" plotline but set on a different planet. Add to this a musical score, one of the late James Horner's best, which is similar in feel to "Titanic".
The Na'vi are portrayed as ten-foot-tall cat-like humanoids (ignorantly described by some as Smurfs on steroids) but, having seen it four times at the cinema and, perhaps, another forty on BluRay that is only obvious in the relatively few scenes where humans and aliens mix. Yes, they are giant, blue, cat-like aliens but the height difference is only really apparent at the beginning when the avatars mix with their human brethren and at the end after the final action scenes as base personnel file past giant Na'vi and avatars. At most other times the stories are entirely separate and the Na'vi, despite size and feature differences, might as well be some kind of Native American tribe albeit one that rides flying dragons. It's also worth noting that Cameron deliberately made the Na'vi humanoid, an artistic decision so that his audience could relate to them. So yes, there is a certain innate attractiveness to the Na'vi, there is a core romance and a sensitively handled scene where the primary characters are clearly about to make love but the really interesting thing is that the more you immerse yourself in the film the more you appreciate the looks of the world and the surreal beauty of the Na'vi people.
For me "Avatar" is very nearly the perfect movie since it encompasses science fiction, science fantasy, honour and spirit-based societies (similar to Native Americans, medieval, ancient Japanese etc.) in a film that broadly speaking works on almost every level. I loved the film, I loved the near flawless effects, the awesome sound, the story that worked and immersed me completely and I care one whit that it was nearly three hours long.
In bringing this movie to the screen, apparently one of Cameron's dreams, the writer/director brings us the world of Pandora, a world of mystery & adventure, a world that captured me mind, body and (although I don't believe in such things) soul. This is a film that attempts to rival (but does not yet equal) Tolkien's tales of Middle-Earth, it hits you like a sledge-hammer and takes your breath away as you slip so easily into the world Cameron has created. I have watched the film, I've read Cameron's slightly different script (just search on Google), I would love to read a book of the film should it become available and might consider reading alternative fiction based in the same universe if it is reasonably well-written and not the bog-standard tide of fan-fiction that a brief search of the net reveals has already started.
The final thing that needs to be mentioned is 2D vs 3D. I first saw "Avatar" at a local cinema, twice on a relatively small screen, in 2D with a friend who had seen it earlier in 3D. He thought it better in 2D but a colleague at suggested that if I liked the film so much, I really should go see it in 3D which I did. There is no question in my mind that "Avatar" is built for 3D and in many ways benefits from that technology (properly done, some 3D effects can almost reach out from the screen, grab you by the throat, shake you around and put you back down again) my preference remains 2D and, in the nine years since the film's release, that view remains unchanged.
Now, nine years after I first watched it, my affection for the film remains. In that time, I have learned (and subsequently mostly forgotten) how to speak Na'vi, I have bought two BluRay copies of the film (the steelbook edition and the three-disc extended edition), bought the game on xBox and PC, as well as the superb soundtrack CD. It would be an understatement to suggest I'm not a fan of, arguably a little obsessed with, Cameron's magical universe of Pandora.
So, with rumours rife about sequels (IMDB lists four sequels; two are filming, slated for release in 2021 and 2022 whilst the other two are in pre-production) would I go and see them? Of course I would, I would not only go and see them I would buy and even longer version of the first (and currently only) film but, despite that enthusiasm for all things "Avatar", I remain concerned. Yes, Cameron is something of a perfectionist, he's a very good director and clearly, he can write a story but most sequels tend not to be as good as the original and we're looking at four of the damned things.
Ultimately, we can only wait and see.
Thanks for reading.
James C. Rocks, Author ("The Abyssal Void" Trilogy)