Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Directed By: James Cameron
Avatar (2009) is one of those ‘don’t judge a book by its cover films’. Just on the first trailer alone it seemed director James Cameron had been overdosing on his FernGully: The Last Rainforest video. Plus the promo art, for all its build up, was less than inspiring; looking something akin to an early nineties Rutger Hauer movie.
Though being as this has nothing to do with the content of the film itself, it is irrelevant. It isn’t, of course, because even on a subliminal level factors such as these can affect a viewing experience. But it is supposed to be. Enlightening then that despite such predilections, Avatar still manages to be the sci-fi movie we always wanted, yet perhaps never really expected.
The plot is similarly contradictory, a straightforward three-act structure by Cameron with deep metaphysical issues in play. Fulfilling the role of his late scientist twin-brother, paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to Pandora moon to inhabit the body of an ‘avatar’, specially grown in a lab to look like the blue skinned indigenous population or Na’vi. Pandora is a rich source of ‘unobtanium’, a precious mineral that US private contractors are attempting to mine. Though the Na’vi are not keen to have their home destroyed in the process and will fight to protect it.
Basically the process involves Jake plugged into a computer asleep as his mind roams free inside the body of his fully functioning, working legs and all, avatar. While undertaking recon, avatar Jake becomes marooned on Pandora; soon integrated into the local clan and eventually switching allegiance from finding their weaknesses to protecting them from the incoming bulldozers. He also falls in love with a Na’vi girl assigned to teach him their customs, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Neytiri is the most interesting protagonist in the film. Typically showing his knack for writing strong female roles, Cameron is more of an actors’ director than he is given credit for. Zoe Saldana instills warrior Neytiri with a vulnerably open heart. Snapping at Jake on their first encounter, “You’re like a baby!” Impatient of his clumsy ways, hissing at his propensity towards violence, she subverts traditional gender framework for master and teacher, man and woman; Neytiri is the knight, Jake is the damsel in distress.
Sam Worthington puts in a balanced performance, switching between his avatar and human body, quietly and convincingly coming to love the ‘enemy’ and her home. We accept Jake because he is an unexceptional man in exceptional circumstances. He learns, considers and then rises to the occasion.
His uniform as a Na’vi is based first and foremost on hierarchical display – consistent for their race. Furthermore costume designers Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah Lynn Scott have worked within Cameron’s design framework to bestow a distinctly human trait on the Na’vi; one that we can all relate to: modesty. Na’vi display ‘colours’ to identify their social standing within the clan, but also to cover their genitalia.
Stephen Lang finally gets his shot at becoming a household name after thirty-odd years of character parts. His stagy, yet believable military colonel Quaritch is unwavering to the end. Face scared from an early encounter with the wildlife of Pandora, his loyalties do not and would not ever change. Stopping short of moustache twirling, Lang strolls Quaritch on screen as a credible tough guy and just gets badder.
An emotionally battle-hardened audience may find themselves initially siding with Quaritch and the corporation he works for (represented in shirt and tie by the ever watchable Giovanni Ribisi), just as Jake does to begin with. The Na’vi with their hands-in-the-air chanting and meaningful conversations about the forest talking are deliberately bohemian. We are supposed to be as skeptical as Jake, though you may find yourself taking longer to be won over.
Just over half way through the film stops being unintentionally funny at moments of worthiness and starts speaking sense. It helps that James Cameron wrote the character of Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). She is inspired by Pandora, but also a scientist. Their chanting is not worship; it is straightforward communication. This is not some pseudo religion Cameron has invented; it is negotiable energy. The Na’vi are bound, connected to live harmoniously on Pandora. Not in a biblical meaning, but because it is nature’s intention.
This is illustrated via the ‘bond’ the Na’vi have to the creatures that inhabit Pandora. They can literally attach themselves to, say, a ‘direhorse’ and be at one with that animal, able to influence and respond to its behaviour. It is like the bond we wish we could have with our pets yet never will. We may think we know what an animal is thinking, but can never really be sure. A Na’vi would know exactly what their direhorse is thinking, because they are thinking it too.
Pandora is a richly picturesque environment, like a sea bed drained of water. The bioluminescence flora and fauna provide a colourful palette that literally seems to leap out at you. If the aforementioned creatures have a slight ‘plasticine’ quality about them, these are the only joins in an otherwise entirely lifelike world.
Such realism and beauty help develop a romantic subplot that could have been laughable, though is actually profoundly moving. The scene where Neytiri cradles human Jake in her arms as he struggles to breathe is as tender moment as you are likely to experience in any love story. Affecting too how it echoes her earlier “You’re like a baby” indictment. Here the same thing is true, but now in a wonderful, protective way.
Cameron could have let loose with the 3D and extravagant effects. In fact he is rather restrained; more detailed than flashy. The moment where Neytiri runs into a window because she has not seen glass before, for example. Or the CGI for Sam Worthington’s thin, muscle wasted legs as he wheels his character around the remote outpost. It is the subtler moments that stick.
Ambitious then but not overreaching, Avatar is a stunning piece of blue heaven. Essential viewing and something you must have an opinion on.
© 2010 – 2012, Chris Laverty.