Avatar (United States, 2009)

December 17, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Avatar Poster

Screened in standard (non-IMAX) digital 3D.

Avatar has been described as a "game-changer," and perhaps it is. I'll leave that for future historians to determine. What I can say with some assuredness is this is the most technically amazing motion picture to have arrived on screens in many years - perhaps since Peter Jackson's The Return of the King. It's also among the most anticipated openings of the decade. Expectations can be a double-edged sword; ask George Lucas. But when a filmmaker meets or exceeds them, the results are tremendous, and that's the case with Avatar. James Cameron has a lot riding on this film, his long-delayed follow-up to Titanic (which came out an even dozen years ago), the all-time box office champion in unadjusted dollars. Under "normal" circumstances, at stake would have been only Cameron's reputation and future autonomy with astronomical budgets. But Cameron has hitched his wagon to 3D and declared this to be the wave of the future. Watching Avatar, I can almost believe it. If every filmmaker could do with 3D what Cameron achieves, I'd gladly wear the uncomfortable glasses to every screening.

Avatar is entertainment of the highest order. It's the best movie of 2009. In 3D, it's immersive (that's the buzzword everyone uses for the 3D experience), but the traditional film elements - story, character, editing, theme, emotional resonance, etc. - are presented with sufficient expertise to make even the 2D version an engrossing 2 1/2-hour experience. Despite expending an extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort perfecting the 3D elements, Cameron never lost sight of what's important. His narrative could almost be considered a science fiction version of Dances with Wolves (by way of Surrogates), and it works for many of the reasons Dances worked. Cameron also borrows from his own catalog. The space/military culture is reminiscent of that in Aliens and the cross-cultural romance recalls Titanic. Avatar doesn't have Leonardo DiCaprio but its love story is in some ways more potent than the one told in Titanic because the stakes are higher. From a purely visual perspective, Cameron gives us one of the most amazing presentations ever of an alien world and builds toward an epic clash that may only have been matched twice previously in movie theaters (both times by Peter Jackson).

Avatar takes us to the planet Pandora in the year 2154. Pandora is a jungle world at which Earthmen have arrived with the intention of performing some strip-mining. Although corporations run the show, the military, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is on hand to provide protection and lend support. The humans' engagements with the indigenous humanoid population, the 10-foot high, blue-skinned Na'vi, have been contentious, bordering on hostile. For a while, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) had some success interacting with the natives by using "avatars"(synthetic Na'vi remotely controlled by humans) to provide education and technological advancement, but progress slowed and Grace was closed out of Na'vi society. Now, she and her group of avatars are trying to find a way back in.

That portal comes in the unlikely person of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine. Sam's journey to Pandora is a fluke. His twin brother, who had trained for years to inhabit an avatar and whose genetic identity was imprinted upon one, died unexpectedly and Jake was the only one who could take his place. He is caught between two masters: Colonel Quartich, who wants the soldier to form a bond with the Na'vi so he can pass back valuable tactical information, and Grace, who wants to rebuild the lines of communication. A series of events in the jungle separate Jake from the other avatars and place him in mortal danger. His life is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who distrusts him but believes he is touched by the Na'vi god. She takes him to the "home tree" where he must not only plead for his life but for the opportunity to learn their ways. Neytiri becomes his mentor and he soon finds himself more in sympathy with his blue-skinned "brothers" than with Colonel Quartich, who is planning a massive operation to relocate the Na'vi away from a rich load of ore.

Most 3D films use the technology as a gimmick - a means to prompt younger audience members to "ooh" and "aah." That's not the case here. Cameron's film is immersive because the 3D was ingrained in its cinematic DNA. He has compensated for the pervasive dimness caused by polarized lenses by increasing the brightness (the images look too bright when viewed without the glasses). He has avoided 3D "tricks" (throwing things at the audience) that might take the viewer out of the experience. Avatar's visuals are so sumptuous that, perhaps as little as ten minutes into the movie, I forgot I was wearing the glasses. I'm still not as bullish as Cameron about the future of 3D, but I see potential where I had not previously perceived it.

Cameron understands how the pieces of the puzzle need to come together to form a complete motion picture, and he assembles them as only a master can. The story, although simple, resonates deeply at a time when media battles rage about whether or not humanity is destroying itself and its planet. As with Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, this is about a military man who finds himself transformed by the culture he adopts and ends up opposing his own people in an impossible battle. Jake's love affair with Neytiri confirms Cameron as being a romantic at heart. The Pandora menagerie is like something out of a dungeon master's wet dream: dinosaur-like creatures that are impervious to bullets, vicious carnivores that make T-Rexes look tame, scavengers that roam and attack in packs, dragon-like flying creatures that populate the skies, and vegetation that's just as alive as the animals. The blue-skinned Na'vi, clearly modeled after the Native Americans, are among the most "ordinary" of Pandora's inhabitants.

All movies like this must have a villain; Avatar provides two. The first is the bureaucrat, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who is devoted to the profit margin above all else. Any resemblance to the Paul Reiser character in Aliens is intentional. Maybe Cameron was thinking of the studio bosses controlling his budget when he created Selfridge. Then there's Colonel Quartich, who is brought brilliantly to life by the scene-stealing performance of Stephen Lang. This man's a real sonofabitch, but it's impossible not to admire him on one level. Like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, he loves the smell of napalm in the morning… at noon, and during the night. Quartich is never CGI animated but he always seems bigger than life. If there's a human star of Avatar, it's Lang.

Lang may have the showiest role but he's not the only actor to do a creditable job. Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver are both solid, even though a good portion of their characters' screen time is animated. Zoe Saldana is even more challenged, since she never appears "in the flesh." Like Andy Serkis' Gollum, she is entirely CGI-rendered, but she accomplished her own motion capture work and provided the voice. Michelle Rodriquez, like Stephen Lang, is never required to become blue. Her role is secondary but unambiguously heroic. Weaver's presence affirms that, as bad as Cameron's reputation as a taskmaster may be, there are actors who appreciate his perfectionist approach. (Others in this group include Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Paxton, and Linda Hamilton.)

After the late summer 20-minute preview of Avatar, there was some unease about the look of the Na'vi. Such concerns are baseless. They can appear opposite humans without the special effects being called into question; we never view them as anything less than three-dimensional. Like Gollum, they transcend their pixel-based conception. We believe them. We accept them. We care about them. That's the key to Avatar being more than a hollow spectacle. In Transformers 2, everything (including the humans) is soulless. Here, there's heart and soul to spare.

Any criticisms I have of Avatar are in the nature of nit-picks, but I will mention them for completeness' sake. At worst, they are ephemeral distractions, easily dismissed. At best, they will not be noticed at all. Sam Worthington's performance is solid but his American accent is not. As was evident in Terminator: Salvation, Worthington's "American" sometimes comes with an Aussie twang. Visually, Avatar is almost flawless, but there are some instances when the camera moves so fast that the 3D effect doesn't track well, resulting in a brief moment of disorientation. Finally, although James Horner's score is predominantly effective, there are instances in which he again engages in self-cannibalization. Material sounding a lot like it originated in his often-used Star Trek II and Aliens scores pops up from time-to-time.

Avatar is the most engaging and enthralling motion picture I have experienced this year - and "experience" is the appropriate word. There's a rush associated with coming to Pandora; this feels more like an interactive endeavor than a passive one. In addition to being emotionally satisfying and one hell of a wild ride, Avatar boasts a smart script, reminding us that would-be blockbusters don't have to be defined by the imbecility of a Transformers 2 or a 2012. James Cameron has been entertaining movie-goers for more than a quarter century and he is in an elite category of filmmakers who has yet to spawn a dog. For quality like this, I'm willing to wait, although hopefully his next movie will come a little more quickly than the 12 years of Avatar's gestation.

Avatar (United States, 2009)

Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore
Screenplay: James Cameron
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 2:41
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1