© 2009 Ray Wong
Based on a fictional story… wait, it doesn't really matter what the story is, does it? James Cameron's Avatar is a quasi-science fiction, fantasy, special effect extravaganza that is meant to be seen on the biggest screens in vivid 3D. And Cameron knows it.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-Marine who is now recruited by "the company" to go to a distant planet called Pandora. The company, headed by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), consists of two rivaling branches: the peaceful scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who try to study and learn from the planet and its most-intelligent beings, the Na'vi; and the military, led by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose objective is to get what they want (a highly precious mineral) by any means.
Jake is to join Grace's team as his deceased twin brother was one of her scientists. His brother studied the Na'vi and volunteered in the "Avatar" program. By mixing human and Na'vi DNAs, Grace's team is able to create bodies of Na'vi and connect their brains to the human hosts, thus letting the human become "puppet masters" of their Na'vi avatars. Since Jake is an identical twin, he is able to take over for his brother. Quaritch, on the other, has other plans. He wants Jake to spy for him, to learn all about the Na'vi and their weaknesses. He gives Jake three months to determine if the Na'vi will be able to relocate, or else they will use brute force.
Through his avatar, Jake is able to gain the trust of the Na'vi, especially the chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She is assigned to teach Jake what he needs to know about the Na'vi's way of life. During that time, Jake slowly gets involved with the Na'vi culture and eventually feels more attached to the "savages" instead of the humans. He is conflicted about his role in this operation. When it's apparent that Quaritch has no intention of letting the Na'vi live, Jake must choose between his own race or his adoptive family.
Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays a dual role, both as the human and the Na'vi avatar through sophisticated motion-captures. Ironically, Worthington's performance comes alive when he's being "rendered" by the animators. As the ex-marine, he's passive and, in many ways, rather dumb. But as the Na'vi avatar, he is physically powerful and emotionally expressive. Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) is wonderful as Neytiri. The MoCap truly captures her expressive face and subtle movements. Her character is amazing to watch because it is one of the most lifelike animation ever.
The human characters are by and large caricatures and two-dimensional, with the exception of Sigourney Weaver (Baby Mama), who gives her character a strong personality and warmth. Michelle Rodriguez (Fast & Furious) is also sympathetic as the soldier with a conscience. Stephen Lang (The Men Who Stare at Goats) is, on the other hand, a through-and-through bad guy. There's absolutely no depth in his character and Lang plays it strictly evil. Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) also has the thankless job of playing a stereotypical corporate weasel. Meanwhile, Joel Moore (Stuntmen) plays a typical second banana.
The Na'vi are played, though MoCap, by some veteran actors, including CCH Pounder (Orphan) as Moat, Wes Studi (The Hunter's Moon) as Eytukan, and Laz Alonso (Fast & Furious) as Tsu'tey.
The screenplay written by director-writer James Cameron (Titanic) is a mixed bag. Avatar is Cameron's first feature film since Titanic 12 years ago. The story is a rehashed tale of Dances with Wolves: a typical hero's journey through understanding and redemption. It follows a clichéd story arc and includes genre archetypes. There's nothing new about the story. In fact, much of it is tiresome and predictable. The dialogue is clichéd and, at times, silly. There are many plot holes that will make your head explode if you think too hard about them. And forget about the pseudo-science: Avatar is a fantasy set in space. There's no surprise at all. We know where the story is going and how it's going to end.
What is surprisingly, however, is the details Cameron puts into the plot. His imagination of Pandora is fantastical, even though maybe a bit too much of a fantasy. Cameron borrows heavily from fantasy tropes (Flying dragons? Trees of life?) as well as native American and African folklores. The result is surprisingly rich and detailed.
While Cameron may falter in screenwriting, he compensates in the direction and visual effect departments. The photorealistic special effects are nothing new -- Spielberg gave us photorealistic dinosaurs almost 20 years ago and Cameron himself gave us a photorealistic rendering of the Titanic. However, what Cameron has accomplished, through sophisticated animation, visual arts, motion capture and 3D technologies, is creating a multi-layered, three-dimensional world that truly is amazing to behold. He's succeeded in putting us in that world. At first, there's still that "computer graphics" look to the film, what with the washed-out color palettes and CGI that is somewhat too perfect and sharp. But as the film progresses, it's amazing that I would suddenly realize I'm actually not looking at something real, because everything looks so real.
The Real3D technology also gives extra dimension to the images. There's no gimmick in 3D anymore. Instead, it simply adds dimensions to our senses as if we were actually there. That's what world-building is about, and Cameron has succeeded in giving us Pandora. Some parts of the film look so incredible that they certainly will take your breath away.
The motion capture is also fantastic, probably the best we've ever seen. As the film progresses, we really forget that we're watching animated characters. In fact, there are moments when I even questioned what I saw. Are they real? Are you sure that's not Sam Worthington in makeup and costume? The climactic battle scenes are outrageous and unbelievable. It's definitely something to see on the big screen, in 3D.
Is Avatar perfect? Far from it. It seems like Cameron simply is incapable of giving us a "perfect" film. His weakness in writing continues to mar his work. However, technically, Avatar is a beautiful film to behold, and to immerse ourselves in. It's all-encompassing, overpowering, and imaginative. And no, actors are not in danger of being replaced, but what Cameron has proved is this: filmmakers can now let their creativity go wild, and great actors could play anything, with the help of MoCap. And he's taking 3D to a whole new level and may one day spoil us so much that we would demand nothing less.
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 10
Editing – 8
Production – 10
Total – 8.1 out of 10