Avatar (2009): Cameron’s Extraordinary Visual Acievement

Writer-director James Cameron’s “Avatar” is an extraordinary visual achievement somewhat hampered by pedestrian storytelling and cardboard characterizations.

Twelve years after the Oscar-winning director unleashed “Titanic,” the most popular film in history, the new feature displays the same strengths and weaknesses as that commercial juggernaut.

Cameron’s time away for over a decade from feature filmmaking has in no way diminished his skills as a creator of epic spectacle or tense action sequences.  But it’s a pity that his narrative gifts aren’t nearly as formidable.

In the year 2154, the human race has sent a convoy to the moon of Pandora to harvest Unobtainium, a rare, powerful mineral that could single-handedly solve Earth’s energy crisis. But there’s one problem — the indigenous people of Na’vi (a race of blue humanoid creatures with long tails and slender bodies) resent the Earthlings’ arrival on their world and want them gone.
 
As a means of fostering peace between the two species, Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is paralyzed below the waist and dependent on a wheelchair, is enlisted for the Avatar Program, which allows him to link up his consciousness to an inanimate Na’vi body cloned from human and Na’vi DNA. Earth’s scientists (including Grace Augustine, played by Cameron veteran Sigourney Weaver) want him to earn the trust of the Na’vi through this avatar persona, hopefully encouraging them to relocate in order to avoid war between the two species. However, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the hawkish head security officer on the Pandora base, tells Jake that if he gives him information on the Na’vi’s military weaknesses, he’ll see to it that Jake gets the expensive procedure that would restore his legs. Jake accepts Quaritch’s offer, keeping his true mission secret from Grace.
 
Arriving on Pandora in his avatar body, Jake encounters Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a fierce Na’vi warrior who reluctantly takes him into her tribe after receiving a sign from her people’s god that he is destined for greatness. Jake discovers that the Na’vi live in harmony with their forest moon and that their trees actually store the collective memories of the tribe’s history. Despite their initial wariness, the Na’vi accept Jake as one of their own, and he falls in love with Neytiri. But his newfound appreciation for the Na’vi puts him into conflict with Quaritch, who wants to eradicate them so that humanity can steal the Unobtainium.
 
Touching on current events like energy dependence and wars waged over oil, “Avatar” clearly wants to draw parallels between its futuristic storyline and our modern-day concerns. And intriguingly, Cameron casts humanity as the evil invaders. Unlike Cameron’s 1986 horror/sci-fi film “Aliens,” in “Avatar” we root for the aliens to defeat the Earthlings. However, the film’s references to real-world events, including the near-eradication of Native Americans by the United States government during the 19th century, ultimately serve as mere plot points to push forward Cameron’s effects work.
 
Speaking of the effects, they’re simply exceptional. Creating Pandora from scratch, Cameron and his production team ran the risk of having so much creative freedom that the result would be gaudy or that the visual wonders would eventually grow monotonous over the film’s 165-minute running time. Impressively, neither of these concerns is warranted. Unlike the overly busy backdrops and artificial-looking worlds created by George Lucas for his “Star Wars” prequels, the elegant, gorgeous layout of Pandora is a treat for the eye. Additionally, despite Cameron’s reputation for being a demanding perfectionist, “Avatar” often boasts a poetic, naturalistic approach to its effects, which would seem to run counter to the director’s obsessive, tech-heavy reputation. If possible, audiences should see the film in 3D, which helps immerse the viewer in Pandora’s layered environment. As with the supple performance-capture animation used to render the Na’vi characters, the 3D technology seamlessly assists the story instead of being a distracting gimmick.
 
Unfortunately, like “Titanic,” “Avatar” can sometimes feel like a series of astounding spectacles linked together by some mediocre story beats. Unfortunately, Cameron’s trouble with clunky dialogue has not improved since “Titanic,” which keeps the characters from evolving beyond action-movie archetypes. Particularly laughable is Lang as the war-ready Quaritch, whose every line is some variation on evil-military-man boilerplate. And while one could argue that “Avatar” is structured like a classic hero’s tale, in reality the story’s overt references to “Dances With Wolves,” “Return of the Jedi,” “The Matrix,” “The Abyss,” and “Aliens” make the plot feel familiar rather than timeless. It also doesn’t help matters that Cameron’s conscientious nods to ecological responsibility and cultural tolerance are executed in very heavy-handed terms.
 
Still, audiences who just want wall-to-wall excitement will be deeply satisfied. Cameron nicely spaces out his epic action set pieces so that the film doesn’t start resembling a never-ending rollercoaster ride. And as per norm, he saves his best moments for the end. The last 45 minutes or so of “Avatar” are its most satisfying, Cameron putting aside meager characterizations and plotting for a visceral battle between the humans and the Na’vi.
 
Among the cast, Weaver gives the best performance, her tough-gal demeanor as Ripley in the “Alien” films replicated for her role here as a no-nonsense scientist. Worthington (previously seen in “Terminator Salvation”) has a macho charisma that makes him appealing in a beefcake sort of way, but he can’t invest Jake’s change from a cocky jarhead into a loving, sympathetic adopted member of the Na’vi with much pathos. And even though Saldana is never seen in the flesh, only as an animated Na’vi character, she still manages to register relatable human emotions, despite the fact that she’s little more than Jake’s love interest.

Cast

Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
Neytiri – Zoe Saldana
Grace – Sigourney Weaver
Col. Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon – Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge – Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman – Joel David Moore
Moat – CCH Pounder
Eytukan – Wes Studi
Tsu’tey – Laz Alonso
Dr. Max Patel – Dileep Rao
Corporal Lyle Wainfleet – Matt Gerald

Credits

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners.

Produced by James Cameron, Jon Landau.

Executive producers, Colin Wilson, Laeta Kalogrios.

Co-producders, Brooke Breton, Josh McLaglen.

Directed, written by James Cameron.
Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, HD, 3D), Mauro Fiore.

Editors, Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua, Cameron.

Music, James Horner.

Production designer, Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg.

Supervising virtual art director, Yuri Bartoli; lead supervising art director, Kim Sinclair; supervising art directors, Kevin Ishioka, Stefan Dechant, Todd Cherniawsky.

Virtual production art directors, Andrew L. Jones, Norm Newberry.

Art directors, Nick Bassett, Rob Bavin, Simon Bright, Jill Cormack, Sean Haworth, Andrew Menzies, Andy McLaren.

Costume designers, Mayes C. Rubeo, Deborah L. Scott.

Sound (Dolby/DTS), Jim Tanenbaum, William B. Kaplan; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Christopher Boyes; re-recording mixers, Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson,

Senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; Weta visual effects supervisors, Stephen Rosenbau, Eric Saindon, Dan Lemmon, Guy Williams; ILM visual effects supervisor, John Knoll.

Visual effects and animation, Weta Digital, Industrial Light & Magic, Prime Focux; visual effects, Framestore, Hybride, Hydraulx, BUF.

Animation supervisors, Richard Baneham, Andrew R. Jones; ILM animation supervisor, Paul Kavanagh.

Visual effects supervisors, John Bruno, Steven Quale.

Performance capture technology and production services, Giant Studios.

Conceptual design, costume and specialty props, Richard Taylor; Stan Winston.

Character design supervisor, John Rosengrant; lead creature designer, Neville Page; vehicle designer, Tyruben Ellingson; initial creature concepts, Wayne Barlowe.

Na’vi language created by Paul Frommer.

Stunt coordinators, Garrett Warren (U.S.), Stu Thorpe, Allan Poppleton (New Zealand). Associate producer, Janace Tashjian.

Assistant director, Josh McLaglen.

L.A. unit camera, Vince Pace.

Casting, Margery Simkin; initial casting, Mali Finn.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 163 Minutes.

Reviewed by Tim Grierson