Written and directed by James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Zoe Saldana
Although writer-director James Cameron didn’t exactly vanish into thin air after his 1997 boffo hit Titanic earned a roomful of Oscars and a small bank’s worth of box office “take,” it seemed that the guy had gone off into a Howard Hughes-like state of reclusion, at least artistically speaking. Of course, Cameron did not retire to some Pacific Ocean island to sip mai-tais and bask on a sun-soaked beach; he has been quite active making documentaries, producing TV series (Dark Angel) and prepping quite a few movie projects, including two sequels to Avatar.
His 2009 science-fiction movie, Avatar, was Cameron’s first feature film in 12 years. Like Titanic, it was very expensive to make ($230 million), partly because Cameron had to develop new computer graphic techniques, and partly because of the ambitious scope of the picture even taking special effects out of the equation.
Col. Quaritch: You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen.
Avatar, which was written and directed by Cameron, is one of those movies that succeeds in drawing the viewer into its world extremely well, especially for viewers who have 3-D TVs and Blu-ray players. However, Avatar doesn’t break any new storytelling ground with its screenplay and/or characters.
The story is straightforward. It is the 22nd Century (2154, to be exact). Humanity has managed to not nuke itself or be overcome by Terminators and is exploring the galaxy. In their interstellar voyages, humans have discovered a beautiful Eden-like planet that they name Pandora. (Interesting name choice, since in Greek mythology Pandora was the too-curious woman who opened a box she wasn’t supposed to open and unleashed most of the world’s ills.)
Of course, Cameron doesn’t want to make Pandora too much like those Earth-like Class M planets Star Trek’s crews always conveniently stumbled upon. Here, the air is not safe to breathe, the flora and fauna are not always harmless and the planet’s inhabitants, the 10-foot-tall Na’vi, are none too trusting about the intruding “Sky People.”
As the film begins, we meet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine whose twin brother Tom died before he could participate in a scientific/military project on Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus and home to the Na’vi.
Because Jake needs the cash for an operation to repair his spine and be able to walk again, he agrees to take Tom’s place in the project, which needs Jake because he is genetically identical to the late scientist.
Upon arrival on Pandora (where he’s given the sarcastic nickname of “Meals on Wheels” because of his wheelchair), Jake meets the charismatic Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who, at the new arrivals’ orientation, tells them about the dangers on Pandora and warns them that though his job is to keep the soldiers and scientists alive, he won’t be able to succeed with all of them.
Jake also meets the scientists who run the Avatar project, which involves the use of advanced virtual reality technology that creates “avatars” of Na’vi natives that are run through the scientists’ minds as they “sleep” in special cubicles.
The project leader is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a no-nonsense, hard-nosed and hard-driving woman who likes the Na’vi and understands their language, but is willing to help the human company achieve its goals as long as it’s done peacefully. Grace is assisted by Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao), who are more into the scientific aspects of the project than they are into the driving force behind it.
Unfortunately, like the gold-hungry white Americans who intruded into the Native American lands in the 19th Century, the corporation personified by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who is willing to do whatever it takes to obtain unobtanium, a mineral which is badly needed on Earth to provide cheap energy.
Col. Quaritch offers Jake a deal; with the avatar, Jake will be the military’s intelligence gatherer and gain all sorts of info on the Na’vi, and the company will pay for his spinal operation. Jake agrees to this Faustian deal, but things take a drastic course correction when Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), prompted by sentient seeds, spares his life instead of shooting Jake with her bow and arrow.
It’s at this point in the story that the viewer knows all too well where the story is going, and if you’re familiar with white-men-in-a-strange–land stories (Pocahontas, The Last Samurai), this is where you start wondering if Cameron is a bit too lazy as a writer to work on more original stories or if he thinks strong visuals will trump a weak screenplay.
To its credit, Avatar totally immerses the viewer into its world; WETA, the special effects team that worked on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, did a great job at rendering truly believable CGI worlds and characters. Lucas film’s ILM guys did a good job in the Star Wars Prequels and in such recent movies as Star Trek, but WETA certainly proves that ILM is not the only game in town anymore.
Even when Avatar shows creatures and places one knows don’t exist, the power of the illusion is so powerful that even skeptics will buy into it. In this respect, Cameron follows George Lucas’s lead in showing believable make-believe places and characters by making things look aged or lived-in and with realistic detailing. So, if you like the visceral aspects of movies as a purely visual medium, Avatar will really amaze and astound you. It certainly is one of those films that demand to be seen in high-definition using a Blu-ray player and a 50-inch HDTV set.
Story wise, Avatar is a completely different ball game. The story is essentially a Pocahontas-in-Space scenario, with Jake as the white man who starts out with an agenda that benefits his people but then takes the natives’ side and becomes a Tarzan-like savior. I guarantee you that if you’ve seen any post-1970s film about the Native Americans’ conflict with the white man, you’ll know exactly how the movie will end by Reel Two of Avatar.
I’m going to give Avatar four stars. Not because it’s the best movie I’ve seen from the 2009 crop (that prize goes to Star Trek). I’m giving Avatar four stars because it is the most visually appealing film I’ve ever seen in the science fiction genre.
(The following features pertain to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s Avatar: Extended Collector’s Edition box set, which is one of those one movie-three cuts releases.)
- Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (23.54 Mbps)
- Resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
- Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1, 1.78:1
- English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
- English: Dolby Digital 5.1
- English: Dolby Digital 2.0
- French: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
- English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin (Traditional)
- 50GB Blu-ray Disc
- Three-disc set (3 BDs)
- Slipcover in original pressing
- Region A
- Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
- Studio: 20th Century Fox
- Blu-ray Release Date: November 16, 2010
- Run Time: 162 minutes