A little “Aliens,” a whole lotta “Dances With Wolves.”
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Lang. Directed by James Cameron.
NOTE: I viewed the movie in IMAX 3-D. Oh yeah.
“Avatar” is here, and it’s a benchmark in filmmaking. Maybe not the best benchmark, but it’s important just the same.
I had reservations about seeing the film. While I am a fan of a good chunk of the Cameron catalog (“Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 1&2,” “True Lies”) “Titanic” left a bad reaction to the world of film. Yes, the film made serious BANK and still sold more tickets than last year’s uber-blockbuster, “The Dark Knight” and yes, the recreation of the “Titanic” as well as its effects was incredible. The big problem was that the script itself (girl marrying for money meets guy from wrong side of tracks and falls in love with him on a doomed ocean voyage) was so formulaic (read: bad) that it might as well have been culled from a Final Draft template. For all I know, it probably was.
That was part of the problem facing James Cameron as he released his first feature film in 12 years. While Cameron is an incredibly gifted technical director, his screenplays leave something to be desired. Maybe “The Abyss” didn’t need much of one, and “Terminator 2” was the first “Terminator” script extended, but “Aliens” and “True Lies” had reasonably good ones. “Titanic” brought forth the idea that Cameron may be foregoing good storytelling for special effects. “Avatar” was Cameron’s chance to redeem himself as a storyteller/filmmaker.
So, is it everything and a bag of chips? On the technical side “Avatar” is not only the bag of chips, but the chip factory. On the story end, it’s slightly better than “Titanic” but not without its faults.
Speaking of, the story goes like this: Corporal Jack Sully (Sam Worthington) is a disabled Marine; his legs don’t work. His twin brother, who happens to have earned a PhD, was recently killed. Sully is given an opportunity for a change in scenery: the planet Pandora.
Sully gets to the planet and is immediately greeted as “meals on wheels”: he has to use a wheelchair to get around. He meets Pandora lab researcher Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) who shows him to his current assignment: the Avatar project. Using a hybrid combination of Na’vi (12-foot tall indigenous blue people of the planet) and human DNA, the “Avatars” are used for diplomacy because the Na’vi people refuse to speak with humans. Fancy that.
Norm then introduces him to Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver). Augustine is pissed-off about the growing hostility between the humans and Na’vi, the fact that her research funding is strained, and that one of her scientists is being replaced by his twin brother; a simpleton self-proclaimed “Jarhead.” She confronts Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi playing mini-putt and channeling Peter Boyle’s character from “Outland”) who tells her that the reason the entire operation is happening at all is because mineral rock located under the Na’vi homeland tree is worth serious BANK (again, “Outland” anyone?). They allow her to do her research because genocide looks bad on the Corporation and that she needs to put up with the new recruit.
Meanwhile, Corporal Sully goes to check-in with Marine Command. Specifically, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang). Quaritch is your hard-ass, war-hardened commander with facial scarring who proclaims that going to Hell would be a vacation compared to their stay on Pandora. He secretly speaks with Sully and promises that if Sully can get him some intel, then he can get Sully’s legs restored.
Sully is loaded into what the “Avatar” interface system, which looks like a giant tanning bed with gel-filled padding and a wire “body” cage. Instantly his mind is “transferred” into his avatar and he’s up and gone. He can run again, climb again, swing, jump again, slide again… he’s got legs again and it’s great. Grace and Norm have avatars as well When he wanders off he makes a stupid movie, jeopardizes the people he’s with, and winds up alone to fend for himself.
He attracts a group of “wild dogs” and is saved by Na’vi native Neytiti (Zoe Saldana). While the reasons she saves him are unclear, she tells him to get back to where he once belonged. He follows her and upon being covered in special “seeds” that float around inside the home tree, she brings him to her folks.
Lucky for him her father Eytukan (Wes Studi) is the Chief of their Na’vi clan and his wife/her mother Moat (CCH Pounder) is the psychic spiritualist. In an act of “brainless wonder” he tries introducing himself and they find he’s a “warrior” and which, unbelievably, leads to them deciding to bring him into the clan, teach him their ways, etc. (see also: “A Man Called Horse,” “Dances With Wolves,” and every-other movie where the “civilized ignorant” must go through tribal initiation in order to find his own humanity and get a better grasp of mankind before the eventual disaster that looms on the horizon approaches).
Sully returns to the main base where all sides applaud him for getting initiated into the Na’vi, having gotten farther than anyone previously. The Corporation and the Corps eye him as an asset for intel they had previously not been able to get. This affords Augustine and her team money and opportunities. Selfridge gives Sully an ultimatum: get the natives out of the tree within three months or the Corporation will bulldoze over it.
Sully is required to video after each avatar session and the longer he stays an avatar, the more he wants to be one of the Na’vi. He, along with Augustine and Company, learns that on Pandora everything is interconnected. His name in Na’vi means “moron” but he gainfully receives their attention and appreciation, finally becoming like them. It’s only when the three months are up and he realizes what he’s done that the shit hits the fan and he must fight against the Corporation and the Corps in order to do the right thing and win back the respect of the Na’vi.
Let me talk for a second about how the film succeeded: technically, the movie is f’n incredible. It’s one thing for advertisers to say, “You’ve never seen a movie like this!” and it’s another for the movie to BE that way. Quite literally, you have never seen a movie like this. The colors and the attention to minute detail (reflections on glass, seeing through objects, etc.) and in a 3-D environment make for an incredible watch. This movie was made for IMAX 3-D, and it utilizes as much of it as it can. I cannot state enough how visually cool it is. One of my favorite things was the projected holographic display monitors. I’m tech-geek like that…
Moreso than a lot of movies of this year, this one invokes multiple emotional responses. Heart-pounding action sequences and breath-taking effects are literally that. At moments you can be wowed, saddened, or even cheer for the eventual comeback of the Na’vi people. Some moments are flat, while others are incredibly in-depth. This is filmmaking that raises the bar, and filmmakers (and ones standing in the wings) should take notice and learn).
To be fair, I also have to mention where the movie failed me and that lies primarily in the story. The opening setup worked out well enough but the characters given dialog that, for the most part, felt left-over from “Aliens.” And yes, from a farther-away viewpoint the plot does sound like “Fern Gully.” When the film relies on formula conventions, such as the tribal chief accepting Sully because he is a “warrior” and because of his daughter… it was hard to forgive it for that and it took about an hour to rebuild my believability in the film. Just as the moment of Redemption occurs, there’s another big snafu: the ultimate battle between Quaritch and Sully.
One of the most difficult scenes/parts of this formula is that battle. It has to be believable. It has to be warranted. You’ve seen it dozens of times before and it’s pretty much a convention of filmmaking. In my lifetime Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader would be the first instance I know and remember. Then there’s Biff Tannen versus Marty McFly (or George) in “Back to the Future.” Sometimes, it doesn’t come off so well; I love the film “Dark City,” but the face-off between Mr. Book and John Murdoch didn’t work for me (it has since gotten better with the Director’s Cut). In “Avatar,” Quaritch uses one of the robotic mechs (like the robots in Mechwarrior) and uses a rifle, as well as an overly-large Rambo knife, to kill Sully and his avatar. My suspension of disbelief on this one got shot to hell.
So, why watch this movie? It’s colorful, innovative, breath-taking, and innovative with heart-pounding action sequences and incredible attention to detail. The script/story isn’t perfect (very few are) but when it works, it works well. The general public should see it because there’s not another movie like it (sorry Pixar) and overall it’s good. Filmmakers should watch it to see what can be done with 3-D, and the fact that Cameron raised the bar on how to tell a story (how to tell, not necessarily what the story was about). Writers should see it to get an idea on how to construct a world (and be jealous of Cameron’s visuals).
My grade: B+/A- (technical alone was an A+, but it lost points for story)