The Way of the Word

11. December 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

Filed under: movies,review — jensaltmann @ 09:07
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Written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver. Runtime ca. 150 minutes

James Cameron has a new movie out, and its name is Avatar. There has been a lot of advance slamming based on previews and trailers. Heck, I’ve even read message board posts complaining about the movie’s logo. As if people were going to see the movie for the logo.

Nope. They’re going to go see the movie for the effects. They’re going to see the movie because James Cameron made it, and whatever you think of James Cameron, you have to acknowledge that he always gives 110%.

Which he did here, again.

The story is relatively simple: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-confined ex-Marine who gets recruited into the Avatar program on the moon Pandora. Avatars are artificially created hybrids of human and Na’vi DNA that look like Na’vi and can survive in Pandora’s atmosphere (unlike humans). His first time out, Jake establishes contact with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na’vi, and gets her clan to accept him as a student of their ways. Initially, Jake’s plan is to infiltrate the clan so that the corporation he works for can either negotiate a resettlement or find out their weaknesses. Because this particular clan happens to sit on the largest pile of Unobtainium (who named this, George Lucas?) on Pandora, and Unobtainium is the single reason why the corporation came there in the first place. Things go south, of course, when Jake learns to appreciate the Na’vi culture, and falls in love with Neytiri. Jake’s boss, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) doesn’t appreciate it, so he goes and destroys the clan’s soul tree.  Jake, outcast as a traitor both by the Na’vi and the humans, assembles the clans of Pandora to fight back.

Yes, the story sounds vaguely familiar. The thing is, this movie isn’t about the story, it’s about the making-of. It’s James Cameron pushing the envelope on what can be captured on film, and succeeding brilliantly. The world of Pandora is breathtaking, both in the vistas (the Hallelujah Mountains in particular) and the details. The world was worked out in detail. Avatar shows us most of that detail. Pandora is also proof of just how much Cameron loves the world under the surface of Earth’s oceans.

The merger between live-action and CGI works beautifully. Yes, you can tell which scenes are CGI. It’s the scenes that show something completely alien.  Beyond that, you can’t tell. The detail is incredible, the rendering unbelievable.

Add to that some fantastic 3-D effects, and you have a visually breathtaking movie. Which is what Avatar is all about. As I said, you won’t go to see Avatar for the story; of which Dances With Smurfs (all due credit to South Park) is a fairly good if snarky summary.

Most of the cast spend most of the time in their avatar bodies (of which only Sigourney Weaver’s looks very much like Sigourney Weaver). While that doesn’t affect the quality of their performance, it buries it somewhat under the effects. But that isn’t the only reason why this movie’s breakout performance is Stephen Lang as Col. Quaritch. Quaritch turns out to be the movie’s most nuanced character. He’s the movie’s villain, but up to a point (where he makes a certain decision), he comes across as quite sympathetic.  Lang vanishes into the role, making the character extremely believable. Then again, he’s helped by the fact that most of his scenes are on sets that are human-relatable, so there’s less to distract from his performance.

Politically, the story is very Green. While that echoes a lot of my own values and attitudes, it actually hurts the story. Because I feel that Cameron not only takes the Gaia hypothesis a bit too far. He also doesn’t just preach the Green message, he sledgehammers it home, to the point where even those who sympathize with it will say, “Yeah, I got it the last 15 times you said it, now shut up and let me enjoy the movie.”

The verdict: If you want to be visually amazed, you will be. Check it out.

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