Few movies have left me utterly speechless after it was over. I'd known about it for a couple of years now and knew that a lot of people involved with it had lofty expectations for it (particularly as the follow-up to Titanic), which is all the more impressive that they met and exceeded pretty much every one.
You've probably seen it already, but for the sake of thoroughness, a little background. Jake Sully, played by the relatively unknown Sam Worthington, is a handicapped marine whose identical twin brother was killed on the streets, just before he was to go to the distant world of Pandora, a lush moon with an atmosphere full of neurotoxins and hundreds of dinosaur-sized beasts. Unique among these creatures are the Na'Vi, a humanoid race of creatures that are deep-set into the nature of Pandora. Scientists stationed there have created Na'Vi-human hybrids called Avatars, which are controlled by humans put in a special form of stasis. Jake's brother, a renowned scientist, was originally supposed to drive one, but Jake is a close genetic match to him, so he's brought on to pilot it instead. Most of the scientists are skeptical that a stupid Marine can run the Avatar, but Jake nonetheless jumps at the opportunity.
Once in control of the Avatar, though, Jake is quickly enamoured by the environment of Pandora, and I can't say I blame him. Many "alien worlds" in other films have just been exotic Earth locales with different signage, but Pandora really is like nothing I've ever seen. Every time Jake turns around, Pandora shows him (and me) something new, from its bizarre plant life to its terrifying monsters, both huge and small. So many different sights might make the setting seem too unfocused, but the environments are realized with such airtight discipline, you feel like you'd know where everything is if you could ever go there. The movie kind of loses interest in this towards the end, but that's probably because it's shifting focus to the climax, rather than the build.
Jake, though, is quickly lost on Pandora, but he meets a Na'Vi woman named Ney'tiri, performed brilliantly by ZoŽ Saldana. She's initially hostile of him, but the nature of Pandora embraces Jake, so he is brought to meet an enormous Na'Vi tribe. They live in an immense tree that provides them with shelter and security, and Jake (of the Jarhead clan) is quickly becoming one of them.
From a technical standpoint, it's incredible, but is that so hard to do these days? "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" was technically incredible, but that movie was still pretty wretched. It's more astounding that the technology at work was put in the service of such intense visual creativity, rather than just for the sake of using it. Many of the creatures, like the Na'Vi, are animated through motion-capture, a technique used by Robert Zemeckis in a number of films featuring dead-eyed computer characters that move quite stiffly just to show he can do it, and though you can sort of tell that the Na'Vi aren't natural (at least the way we would know it), it's difficult to imagine they were made by computers. The use of 3D in the film is appreciably subtle after having so many balls thrown at me in other films. From the opening shot of the spaceship receding deep into space, I knew that Cameron had raised 3D from a gimmick to an art form.
From a story standpoint, it may all be things we've seen before, but fiction has always been comprised of the fiction that came before it, so I don't know why it's so extraordinary in this particular instance. If you break it down enough, it's a story about a military man switching sides because he has more belief in the enemy's cause, certainly a common theme, but I think that's the story that works best for this material.
I believe that Avatar's story is an allegory, especially because it centres around a mineral called "unobtainium", which for years has always meant something extremely valuable but impractical to obtain. We never find out what unobtainium does or how its used because it's not important. Many of the supporting characters, like the gruff Col. Quartich or the slick businessman Parker Selfridge, seem shallow and stereotypical at first, but if you think about it, they exist as archetypes. Quartich is a man that thought he'd beaten it all, then Pandora almost beat him. He's the quintessence of raw military obsession, and with Jake Sully as his in, he's going to show Pandora who it's dealing with. I don't consider him the villain; I think he's something that a larger, unseen villain is acting through.
And Selfridge, who's unfortunately relying on that drooling, cigar-chewing machismo to raise his stock price, his conflict evolves in a subtle way. Initially cool and collected, and skeptical about the scientist's warnings (like most movie characters, I'll grant you), he slowly and subtly becomes horrified at the lengths the military are going to find the unobtainium, but he knows he can't go back. As he's escorted off the planet at the film's end, he gives a pitiable look to one of the Na'Vi, which I think is more effective than a thousand "I'm Sorry's".
Quartich, too, comes into his own, in a way. He's somewhat incapable of development, but so are most movie villains, so his climax is different. In a bold twist, he actually succeeds in knocking down the Na'Vi tree, freeing up the unobtainium deposit underneath it, and mining can begin. But that's not what he was after; he presses on, in a large robotic tank, with animalistic fixation. I wonder if anyone else thought this was a patently unnecessary expense. I'll admit, that when he finds Jake in the Avatar body and accuses him of "betraying his kind", I wasn't much moved, but I think he has his moment when Ney'tiri brutally fights him. Seeing her, an alien being crawling all around him with such tremendous ferocity, knocking out his vehicle's windshield, stabbing him, trying to bite him, and Quartich, though he knows he's pretty much doomed, won't let Pandora beat him, even when its at his throat. It's chilling to see a man with absolutely no self-preservation, and when he finally died with a huge, horrifying grin across his face, I was pretty sickened by it.
Of the scientists, Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Augustine is probably the most interesting (of the two scientists working there. How can a program as complex as the Avatar program have just two active scientists?) She has undercurrents of Ripley from the Alien movies, but I found her to be much more seasoned and cynical, particularly when confronted with a military lummox like Jake. Through the Avatars, though, she finds goodness in herself, as a guide to the other Avatars, and a teacher to the Na'Vi. She's constantly at arms with the other divisions of the human presence on Pandora, but Jake, having a hand in all of them, helps her rediscover what's important. The other scientist, though, Dr. Spellman, felt a bit like weak comic relief, and the chopper pilot played by Michele Rodriguez was disappointingly underused. She was mostly reduced to the role of chauffeur.
As for our mains, though, we have kind of a character study. At the beginning, when he sees his brother put in a cardboard box and unceremoniously cremated, Jake isn't much moved by it. I thought that was a bit callous at first, but I think it symbolizes his character's initial weakness, that he's simply indifferent to anything. He might be after more than just a pair of working legs in the Avatar program. And Ney'tiri seems to not necessarily characterize all the Na'Vi, but brings them down to Jake's level. She can be as skeptical and brutal as anything else, but when the world speaks, she listens, even if it can be incredibly difficult.
It's in the small details that I think this story emerges, like how the Na'Vi biology works. It's explored pretty thoroughly (except for how they have sex, for obvious reasons), particularly in the way that their long, braided hair is actually a sensory organ that can connect with other creatures and plants. The Na'Vi have a "connection to nature" in a much more practical way than the Native American tribes they're supposedly apeing (even Dr. Augustine makes a point about this). This is probably the first creature I've seen that has "spiritual biology", where their beliefs and superstitions are shaped directly by what they know and sense.
It's through this that Jake comes to feel more at peace with the Na'Vi than the humans. He's offered several times to have surgery to heal his legs if he plays ball, but really, after all he's seen and done, does it really seem like all he's after is legs? He becomes part of the Na'Vi because, though they might seem naÔve, they have so much more to offer. He makes mistakes earlier in the movie, thinking that his human allies are simply trying to accomplish something rather than just being fixated on obliterating the Na'Vi, but in the second half, he knows he must account for those errors. It's not entirely unreasonable when he's suddenly disconnected from the Avatar, which falls down dead, and then he's accused of being a "demon in a false body". He has to prove that he isn't, much as he, well... is.
The story is admittedly simple, and probably wouldn't win any Oscars, but I think that's because it's meant to be something to hang the emotion and spectacle off of. The simplest stories are usually the most real stories, and when you're dealing with a concept as outlandish as a Marine piloting an alien on a different planet, you don't want to complicate it too much. It may show us that, no matter where we go or what we may see, life may not be all that different wherever we find it.
This film is important in a huge number of ways, and it's astounding that, after fifteen years of hype, and even skepticism from me (when I saw Jake's speech to the Na'Vi in the first trailer, I said to myself "So Cameron is making Braveheart?"), it still delivered, big-time. It will be interesting to see what kind of future for the film industry it could bring.