A military man in a far-off land forges a relationship with the natives, falls in love with one of them, sympathizes with them, and ends up leading an uprising against his own people who seek to exploit the natural resources of the land. No, I’m not talking about Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves. I’m talking about Avatar, the first feature film in 13 years from Oscar-winning director James Cameron, following 1997’s Titanic. Set in 2154, humans have colonized space, and have discovered a precious mineral (“unobtanium”) on the lush moon of Pandora, which orbits a gas giant. Unfortunately, the native Na’vi – a ten-foot tall blue-skinned sentient humanoid species indigenous to Pandora – aren’t too thrilled with the mining operation, and have put up resistance. So the RDA Corporation (heading up the mining effort) have a private security firm (Sec-Ops) contracted by ex-military types to keep everyone safe. In parallel, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has created the “Avatar Program” to help facilitate good relations between the humans and the Na’vi. The program lets humans create a neural link to human-alien hybrids based on their DNA that can survive in the harsh atmosphere of the planet – like remote driving a body, if you will.
After the death of his twin brother, wheelchair-bound ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is tapped to replace him in the Avatar Program, since Jake’s DNA is identical to his brother’s, and he’s therefore a match for the Human-Na’vi hybrid that was already created for his brother. After getting separated from the scientific team on an outing, Jake ends up meetin Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na’vi who believes that the mother goddess Eywa might sense something special in Jake – so she brings him back to Hometree, the giant tree where her clan resides. There, her mother -the clan’s spiritual leader – takes an interest in Jake, and tasks Neytiri with teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi. Sensing an opportunity, Sec-Ops head Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tells Jake to get some intel on the Na’vi and Hometree – since the largest unobtanium deposit turns out to be right beneath it. As Jake bonds with the Na’vi, his loyalties start to blur, and soon he finds himself in the middle of a conflict between humans and aliens, and he needs to pick sides.
The biggest problem with Avatar is the script. While James Cameron has done amazing work creating a completely realistic looking world in Pandora, and the visual detail is extraordinary, the cookie-cutter characters detract heavily from making this a masterpiece. Jake Sully is John Dunbar, and he turns to the Na’vi’s side pretty fast, and even his Braveheart-styled motivational speech just prior to the film’s jawdropping battle climax seems flat, unoriginal, and has a “been there done that” quality. From the pigeonholing of Quarich as a “kill the savages” meathead, to the caricature of the Na’vi as a one-with-nature people who proclaim to be equals with the other animals – while at the same time mentally bonding with them to exert control over them, Cameron’s characters are hardly “deep”.
Once you get beyond the flat characters and predictable rehashed plot, Avatar becomes one of the coolest movies in years. If there’s one thing Cameron has been able to do exceptionally well, it’s to come up with a vision and execute it – and all that attention to detail pays off in spades. He’s also a master of choreography – the battle sequences are so well blocked out and edited, allowing us to enjoy the massive amounts of eye-candy. The film supposedly cost nearly half-a-billion dollars, and it’s nice to know that all of it is on the screen. Musically, James Horner’s score doesn’t seem to break any new ground, and while fans with sharp ears will hear bits of some of his previous works (especially his ‘four note danger motif’), it still provides just the right amount of emotional boosting that the film doesn’t get from the script. In the end, Avatar is a great experience – especially if seen in 3D – and while the story and characters might seem a bit flat and familiar, it’s still absolutely worth checking out.