Droid defines the Decades best films – #8 Avatar (2009)
It’s been almost three months since ‘Avatar’ finally came out and the dust has settled a bit. It’s broken all sorts of Box Office records, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, and re-crowned James Cameron as King of the WorldTM. So, once we put aside all the marketing hoopla, fanboy bullshit and anti-Cameron backlash, is it a good film? In my humble opinion, yes. It’s very good. Eighth best of the decade in fact.
In the year 2154, Earth has exhausted all it’s resources, except for, it seems, ammunition and military hardware. We have discovered a small planet named Pandora, inhabited by ten foot blue natives known as Na’vi. One particular tribe of Na’vi live on a rich deposit of unobtainium, which is a macguffin that “sells for twenty million a kilo” and is desperately sought after by humans. In order to get their hands on the unobtainium, the humans need the Na’vi to vacate the premises. As humans are unable to breath in Pandora’s atmosphere, scientists on the planet have designed a technology where they can grow artificial Na’vi combined with a specific humans DNA which can be used as avatars. They are able to control the Na’vi suit remotely.
When his twin brother is killed, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a former marine who was paralysed in combat, is asked to take his place in the Avatar program. When Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) learns that a marine will be controlling one of the avatars, he promises a very expensive operation that will return Jake the use of his legs, in return for information that could be used to physically remove the Na’vi from their home. In the Na’vi body, Jake is invited into their tribe and taught their ways by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He grows to understand the Na’vi, learns their customs and beliefs, gradually becoming one of them.
Cameron has made an easily accessible film. Lord knows for $400 million or whatever it cost, he’d want to. The story is uncomplicated, the characters clearly defined (but admittedly, without a great deal of depth), and the themes are presented in a simple and straightforward manner. This is by no means a thinking mans film. It’s painted with broad strokes. One of the many pleasures of the film is experiencing the world that Cameron has created. He has built an entire ecological system, simultaneously familiar and alien, from the ground up. He hasn’t glossed over the details like the majority of other similar films do, but he has embraced them. He has created a unique, dangerous and beautiful world of fluorescent fauna, wild beasts, giant trees and floating rocks.
I’m not a huge fan of 3D. The colours are dulled, it’s dark, it strains your eyes and it can be distracting to the point of taking you out of the experience of watching the movie. Cameron specifically designed a new type of 3D camera to use for ‘Avatar’, and it shows. But the 3D is successful because Cameron understands that it’s not about poking you in the eye with a stick, but it’s about layering the shot, giving it depth. I saw this in IMAX 3D and was curious to see if it would hold up on second viewing without the visual gimmicks. I watched it at home the other day and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was once again greatly entertained. As expected there is a bit of a drop off in WOW factor from seeing it the first time and on the big screen, but it wasn’t as much as I feared. It’s still superbly entertaining.
The acting is effective across the board, without being anything special. The characters are mostly quickly established in general terms. Worthingtons Jake Sully is stubborn, strong willed and has nothing to lose. Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine drinks, smokes and generally defies authority. Langs Colonel Quaritch is the clichéd military badass, who would rather shoot first and go drinking later. It’s no surprise in a James Cameron film that the most fully realized character is a woman. Saldana’s Neytiri is the typical Cameron heroine. Independent, passionate, intelligent and able to kick a lot of ass when necessary. A couple of the supporting cast aren’t fleshed out as well as I would have liked, particularly Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy. But there is just enough characterisation to get us involved. So it’s more than a very expensive sound and lights show.
There are themes presented in the film that some people seem to have taken offense to. Namely, an environmental theme which promotes responsibility and respect for nature. It is developed as part of the story, and helps bring depth and meaning, as well as helping the audience sympathise with 10 foot blue aliens. I found nothing remotely offensive about this, as it’s not particularly heavy handed, nor is it that preachy. I also don’t agree with peoples assumptions that the Na’vi are representative of any specific race of people, and are depicted in a racist fashion. But each to their own. If that is your belief, it might satisfy you to know that Avatar 2 deals with a tribe of displaced Na’vi, living on a small patch of land assigned to them by the humans. The Na’vi’s main source of revenue comes from a legalised casino. One snowy evening, a ragtag group of humans dressed in Santa outfits try to rob it. Ben Affleck has already been cast.
There are wonderful sequences in the film, particularly Jake “choosing” and learning to fly his banshee, and his first flight. But the real star of the show, the one we waited for (and some sat through most of the film for), is the battle that makes up for most of the final act. It’s epic in scale, with countless Na’vi warriors on banshees battling attack helicopters and huge bombers in the skies, while on the ground the Na’vi take on infantry and soldiers in robotech machines. I can confirm for all those concerned about his well-being, that our beloved Joel David Moore does indeed survive the battle, and is featured at the end. Interestingly the final showdown between Sully and Quaritch, neither are fighting mano-a-mano, but instead are both controlling very different forms of Avatars.
One thing I will briefly point out is how great it is to have back a director that knows how to stage an action scene without cutting three times a second, or resorting to nausea inducing shaky cam. It’s a welcome change.
I’m not going to sit here pretending that ‘Avatar’ is a perfect film. Far from it. But despite its flaws, it is damn entertaining. Certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I had at the cinema last decade. And it’s a big reminder of exactly what’s missing from the modern blockbuster. Fun. Goofy, unabashed, joyous fun.
You can find my original, day of release review here.
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