I’ll discuss the general plot in this review but I’ll give you a warning before there are any real spoilers.
I was very dubious about this film. I really wanted it to be a great movie, but it could so easily have just been a tacky display of special effects without any substance. I try to keep faith in James Cameron, the writer/director. After all, he’s given us Terminator and Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies and Strange Days. He’s also given us Titanic. It’s not a spotless track record.
In truth, this movie lies somewhere between eye shatteringly, brain stunningly awesome and Meh, it’s all right. It actually has aspects of both. The basic story is this: It’s some time in the future and Jake Sully, a paraplegic Jarhead war veteran, is shipped to the planet Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na’vi. Jake’s brother was trained to interact with the Na’vi, but was killed. Jake, as his twin, has the necessary genome to take over his brother’s role. That role is to lie in a box, remotely operating an artificially grown Na’vi body or Avatar. Of course, the humans are actually there for a rare and valuable resouce and moral dichotomies ensue. The rare resource itself nearly made me get up and walk out right away. It’s called, wait for it…
Fucking really?! I was appalled at that. It’s worse than Adamantium in the X-Men movies that my wife can’t hear as anything but Adam Ant Ium. Unobtanium. Man, that’s really, really bad.
Also, there’s something kinda weird about the whole Avatar concept itself. The planet has a toxic atmosphere for humans and the Na’vi are about twelve feet tall and the planet is all hostile and so on. So I suppose that’s why they’ve gone to these ridiculously complex lengths to interact with the natives. It does sort of work, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was a bit like white people going into Africa with boot polish on their faces saying, “We’sa here to um-help you, bongo bongo.” That aspect of it all was a bit uncomfortable for me.
The Na’vi are a race absolutely in tune with their green and vibrant planet. The humans are a bunch of yahoos desperate for this rock and want the Na’vi to move so they can mine the best of it. The Na’vi want nothing from people, so the people decide to muscle in and take it. Jake manages to get deeper into Na’vi culture than anyone ever has before, he learns about how they’re just lovely folk and falls in love with one of them. Naturally, even though he said he would report back to the army with intel, he ends up siding with the scientists and trying to save the Na’vi from the marauding humans. There are heavy and obvious overtones of looking after your mother planet, the humans not understanding the Na’vi’s deep bond with all of nature and so on.
So you can see that we’re following a story by numbers here and this is where it’s hard to call this movie good or bad. On the one hand it is visually fan-fucking-tastic. The world building, the scenic backdrops, the native life, the whole vibe of the planet Pandora is absolutely beautiful. The use of 3D is clever, without trying to shock the audience all the time. There’s very little stuff-flying-at-your-face-to-make-you-gasp 3D and a lot of just normal, well shot cinema that just happens to be in 3D. The 3D does have some flaws. In fast action sequences the focus is sometimes lost, for example. Also, everything seems to have a slight sheen over it and you are fundamentally watching a movie with your sunglasses on. Taking the glasses off, the film, while blurry because of the 3D effects, is actually brighter and more vibrant. You’d think they could crank the brightness up a bit for 3D to account for the fact that everyone is wearing shades. Small gripe though. The futuristic nature of the human’s vehicles and computers and stuff like that is well thought out and interesting to look at too. There’s no doubt that as pure cinema this film is a stunning achievement.
It would have been really nice if the story had been as powerful and mould-breaking as the technical extravagances. But, even though the story is predictable potentially to the point of boredom, it’s very well done. It’s painting by numbers but they stay very neatly within the lines. There’s nothing here, nothing at all, that will surprise you. You can see the major plot points coming like one of those massive hammerheaded bull things smashing through the forest (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) but that somehow doesn’t spoil it. Although it’s cliche, it’s well-scripted cliche. There’s enough going on that it doesn’t seem like a kid’s film and by the time it all starts coming to a head there are very few punches pulled and that helps to lend it credibility.
So yeah, it’s a pedestrian story but an incredible spectacle and worth seeing on the big screen, especially in 3D. After the next picture there are SPOILERS and what I really thought of some parts of it. There are some problems I had that I can’t discuss without spoilers. Read on if you’re interested or go and watch the movie and then come back and see if you agree with me.
You must learn the ways of the forest. Feel the Force, Luke…
I mean, draw the bow, Jake.
Seriously, Unobtanium. FUCKING UNOBTANIUM?! I’m still offended by that name. It’s almost like Cameron said, “What does it matter? Call it anything. We just want mad blue dudes diving around in a glowing forest anyway.” Which is a shame. Unobtanium, for fuck’s sake… all right, let it go, Al. Let it go.
There are other problems with this flick. The whole Avatar concept I’ve mentioned up above and that is a bit weird, but we’ll just accept that because it’s the foundation of the entire movie.
The other major problem I had was this. Jake and the scientists, with one rogue chopper pilot, decide that what the company is doing is just plain wrong and they take a stand against it. Would no other people there stand against it too? Why would just one tiny handful of people decide genocide was wrong while the rest of the humans there go along with it? We’ve reached out to the stars, but we’re still that dumb? And that then leads on to another problem. Against all odds (naturally) Jake and the Na’vi stop the humans from destroying the Soul Tree, and round up all the remaining people and ship them back off to Earth. So you’ve just handed the US Marine Corps (which appears to have taken over as the entire Earth army) a massive spanking. These tall blue hippies with their bows and arrows have sent the Marines packing. So those Marines get back to Earth and tell everyone what happened. You can imagine what happens next. Avatar 2 would be a very short film – Earth arrives with multiple battlecruisers, hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers, massed gunships and tears through the Na’vi population like a teenage boy through his prom date’s knickers.
Or are we supposed to believe that the humans “learned a lesson” and will leave the Na’vi alone from now on?
Also, the biggest deposit of Unob… you know, I just can’t bloody say it. I’m going to call it Plot Device Stone. So, the biggest deposit of Plot Device Stone is right under the big old Home Tree. Or was it under the Soul Tree? Whatever, basically, it’s exactly where the Na’vi are. But there’s an entire planet out there – what’s the rush? Why couldn’t the company mine all over the place where there weren’t any indigenous populations and let the Avatar program spend months or years more interacting with the Na’vi. They might have learned more, might have negotiated mining rights or whatever. If nothing else the slaughter would have been delayed by a fair chunk of time. More realistic than it was presented in the film anyway.
Still, that sequence where they blow the shit out of the Home Tree was pretty damned impressive.
Lastly, something that simply did my head in. What the fuck was it with Sigourney Weaver/Grace’s nose?! All the Avatars were essentially Na’vi people that resembled their human operators. Except Grace. She was an Avatar with Sigourney Weaver’s face. That was just bloody freaky, especially a Na’vi with a human nose. Imagine how much that would have freaked out the Na’vi when she first showed up, especially as she was one of the first. She walks in and the entire population screams, “What happened to your face?!”
There are other small plot issues that I have. The usual convenient story events, the blatant set ups (like him flying the big orange dragon thing) and so on, but we can ignore those. It is a shame that such an incredible looking film had such a predictable story, but there you go. It wasn’t all bad and I have to be honest – I sat in the cinema and lapped up every second of it. (Except Plot Device Stone and Grace Face – they were both just wrong.)