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Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-

11 Responses

  1. I thought that the plot of Avatar was fairly predictable, especially the ending, as you said, which you could see coming about an hour before it happened. However, it ended up being serviceable, delivering the film’s tremendous visual experience. Avatar was really a film that created a world you could get lost in, not only visually but also in the overall “world of the film,” if I’m saying that right.

    I’ve really liked Sam Worthington in the two films I’ve seen him in (this and Terminator: Salvation). Good review, I pretty much agreed with you on everything…I ended up putting Avatar at the top of my list of movies for 2009, which was due in part to the fact that I didn’t end up seeing some other movies that might have given it a run for its money (like Up in the Air, for instance).

    Your description of the Colonel as “Rambo-esque” was perfect, btw. haha

    • Thanks, Jesse — had I seen this before I made my Best Performances of 2009 list, Stephen Lang might have merited an honorable mention for sheer tenacity. Damn, that guy just WOULD NOT give up!

      Yeah, I guess it was the predictability that made “Avatar” not take my heart by its, um, heartstrings — not the same way “Precious” or “Up” or “Up in the Air” did, anyway.

      • Yeah, I just saw your other post about Avatar immediately after reading this, so my comment felt redundant in retrospect. I really want to see Up in the Air. I’m assuming that it won’t have quite as much CGI and blue, ten-foot tall people as Avatar, though…

  2. I’m not willing to let the images surpass the crappy story. When it comes to horror flicks, sure. Nobody expects to get a good story there but after working so hard for so long on this you would think that the characters and story wouldn’t be so plain and boring.

    Yeah it’s beautiful to look at but so is my girlfriend and she’s got more character development! HAHA!

    • Thank you, thank you — he’ll be here all week! Be sure to tip your waitress! (In all seriousness, that was a good joke.)

      Yeah, I hear your gripe about the story. I mean, he put all that work into the visuals, so what’s the harm in going a LITTLE bit further and tweaking the story so it seemed more original? The images did a whole lot for me and they are friggin’ amazing, but the story’s a problem — hardly an unforgivable one, but a problem nonetheless.

  3. I must admit I’m curious what you think of it, but looks like most people are in agreement that Avatar gets an A+ for visuals and probably C or B- for plot/originality. I don’t regard it as ‘crappy’ just because Cameron could’ve gone a bit further with it though, as despite its flaws, I was still moved by it. That scene you mentioned with Neytiri and the real Jake was one of them that worked for me. Of course it can’t be compared with something like Up in the Air, but then again, Avatar’s got other things going for it that draws people in.

    Btw, Lang’s ‘one-note’ and Rambo-esque portrayal was what’s fun about Quatrich. I’d pick on Ribisi’s performance more as I couldn’t quite read what this guy’s about y’know, but he’s such an important character that should be more explored.

    • Can’t argue there — Lang did a bang-up job with his villainous part. Yeah, I wish there had been more depth, but the man deserves a lot of credit for being a kickass bad guy.

  4. […] Picture / “Star Trek” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” […]

  5. During the film, I was momentarily messed up by many of the same things that were been mentioned here, but for the most part, I forgot them as my pleasure continued. Even the over zealous depiction of capitalism or the over bearing were accepted as being a important part of the film.But there one small issue that (oddly enough, I guess) irked me. There was no way to go back and watch it again, but I’m pretty sure that when the Colonel was killed, he took his hands off the robot controls, trying to remove the arrow/bolt. Yet, with the Colonel’s death, the robot TOPPLED OVER! I would have expected such a machine just to simply stop moving and stand there.

  6. […] given the lack of sleep I got last night). Any movie that could play such strong defense and keep “Avatar” at bay – the film got the awards it deserved, says I — is OK with me, and in this […]

  7. […] sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different […]

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