James Cameron’s latest film since Titanic is now in theaters. The film combines humans with digital environments in a way that no-one has done before, and takes visual effects to places which they’ve never been to before. That’s all well and good, but the movie sucks then you don’t get anywhere. So – with the amount of hype coming out for this movie, at a level on par with Episode I, does it suck as badly as Episode 1 does, or do we get a movie that meets up with the hype?

Cast, Crew & Other Stuff

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine
Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge
Joel Moore as Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder as Moat (Note: not pronounced like the pool of water around a castle).
Wes Studi as Eytukan
Laz Alonso as Tsu’tey
Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel

Written and Directed by James Cameron
Music by James Horner
Special Effects by Industrial Light and Magic, WETA, and Stan Winston Studios.

The Premise

Jake Sully is a former marine who was wounded in action and lost the use of his legs. When his twin brother, a scientist, was killed in a mugging, Jake takes his place on a mission to the planet Pandora, to take part in the Avatar Project – a project where he will remotely take over the body of a specially grown member of the indigenous people, the Na’vi, in the hopes of forming diplomatic contact with them – to get them to allow the corporation (no name is given) to mine an rare mineral. Dr. Grace Augustine, the expert on the Na’vi, and the founder of the Avatar project, wants the Na’vi to be left in peace. Colonel Miles Quaritch, the commander of the company’s private security force, would like to wipe the Na’vi out. the corporation’s representative, Parker Selfridge, wants the to maximize the company’s profits, no matter what the cost to the Na’vi.

My Thoughts

I’m going to change from the usual “High Points & Low Points” here, because my thoughts on the film don’t necessarily fit that format, and I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here as well – while staying relevant to the movie.

I grew up reading science fiction novels. The first novel I read was Sci-Fi. The novels I read, by Niven, Pournelle, Heinlein, Asimov – particularly the ones about planetary exploration, have never really, in my opinion, been represented or otherwise captured on film – most likely for budgetary reasons. Probably the film to get the closest to getting there is “Forbidden Planet”. Nonetheless, I’ve waited for years for films to do the kind of science fiction story I’ve been waiting for. This does that. This is the science fiction film I’ve been waiting my entire life for.

That said, this isn’t a story that could only be told in the medium of science fiction – which, I’ve heard one critic describe as the only meaning of science fiction. At one time I agreed with him on this point. I don’t agree with that anymore. The way I see it, Science Fiction can be three types of stories. Science Fiction can be stories that exist to discuss and address the effects of technological growth and development on society. They would be stories that, at the base level, only work because they’re using a character which is an artificial intelligence to discuss what it means to be human, or where time dilation puts strains on one’s connection with other humans (Voices of a Distant Star and 2001: A Space Odyssey are good examples of this). My second type is stories that would fit in another medium, but the creators used Science Fiction as a way to tell the story, and used technology, and technological developments as set dressing, or as plot elements as needed. Star Wars, Altered Carbon, and Firefly are good examples of this. My third type is stories which use the trappings of Science Fiction to address a social issue in an indirect fashion. Rather than directly, outright covering racism, pollution, or other issues, they use the trappings of science fiction to slip under a reader or viewer’s radar, and subversively get their message across – the classic example of this being the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battleground” and to a certain extent (from what I’ve heard second hand) District 9. Though, the second and third types can be combined as well – but I’m not going to define that combination as a fourth type (Avatar would be a combination of types 2 & 3). So – moving back to the usual formula.

High Points

This film manages to pack in a lot of Crowning Moments of Awesome here, and paces everything enough that I found myself cheering for a Deus Ex Machina (or would it be Deus Ex Planeta)?

Also, the Na’vi are very well handled. The people have references elements to Native Americans (from both North and South America culture), plus I think a couple references to some of the Pacific Island native cultures as well. Vocally, native Na’vi’s voices both when speaking English and their native language, have what sounds like an African cadence (and it helps that African-American actors were cast for the major native Na’vi roles), which provides excellent auditory shorthand for distinguishing between when an native Na’vi is speaking and when one of the avatars are speaking. I think it also pretty much covers most native civilizations that were exploited heavily by Western colonial powers and which are still trying to recover from that damage.

Additionally, like Nausicaa, the film’s ecosystem feels fleshed out. All the plants and animals seem to fit pretty well in the planetary ecology, from what we see of them, and in general the planet feels alive.

Low Points

Colonel Quaritch is an incredibly two-dimensional villain, and as for Parker… well, if you’ve seen Aliens you know exactly what he’s like.

Content Notes:

The film doesn’t have a lot of blood, particularly. However, there is a fair bit of profanity (with a lot of use of “s***” for a PG-13 movie). Also, Na’vi women don’t particularly worry about having their breasts covered. Usually there’s strategically placed stuff, but occasionally there’s a visible nipple, but nothing big is made about it. Honestly, you’ll find more female nudity in an year of National Geographic than in this movie.

The Scores:

Originality: The film isn’t totally original. The plot has parallels with Dances With Wolves (and some people have suggested Ferngully, which isn’t totally an unfair comparison – though I’d say Nausicaa is a bigger paralell), plus Parker is taken right out of Aliens, and you can argue that Trudy is too (as a combination of the drop ship pilot and Vasquez). Plus, readers of the Green Lantern comics are probably very familiar with the concept of a planet being alive. That said, the combination is in a fashion that I don’t think has been done before, and is very well executed. 4 out of 6.

Effects: Gorgeous. Just freaking awesome. This is the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen in my life. I’d also like to say that the 3D effects are handled very well, without particuarly anything gimmicky being done with the effects. 6 out of 6.

Story: As mentioned previously, it’s Dances With Wolves with a side of Nausicaa and drizzled with Aliens sauce and served IN SPACE (sort of). All in all, that’s pretty delicious in my opinion. 5 out of 6.

Acting: The performances are solid across the board, for the Human scientists, and fantastic for Jake and the Na’vi. 5 out of 6.

Production: Aside from the excellent visual effects, including for the surface of the planet, the sets are extremely well designed. The powered armor also is handled pretty well, and is probably some of the best power armor I’ve seen in media in general (including real robot anime series like Patlabor and Armored Trooper Votoms). Plus, the language of the Na’vi feels reasonable and logical, something that I feel like I could learn just as much as I could learn Elvish, Dwarven, or Klingon. 6 out of 6.

Emotional Response: The movie got to me in a good way. I came to care about the supporting cast (as little of them as there was), just as much as I did about the stars. 5 out of 6.

Overall: It’s a sci-fi film, so it’s probably not going to win in the major categories at the Acadamy Awards. However, if it doesn’t win (not just get nominated, but win), Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form at the next Hugo Awards, it will be highway robbery. 6 out of 6.

In Total, Avatar gets 37 out of 42.