This review is being republished, as Avatar is set today to be re-released into theaters.
James Cameron spent the last fifteen years and the GDP of a small country in order to build the technology necessary to make his vision of a world and story a reality. The result is breathtaking.
It is a simple story in outline form, and one that is familiar to science fiction and told from start to finish in the trailer. Humanity has all but exhausted Earth. It stumbles upon a new unspoilt world, with strange new resources to loot, primitive aliens of hidden depth. The company wants to burn everything down, the scientists are appalled, the natives fight, our protagonist helps. But that summary is all facts and no soul.
Pandora is a fully realized world, the intricacy and detail astonishing. The exploration unfolds with a sense of wonder, joy, and danger reminiscent of the first half of Jurassic Park. Composites of dinosaurs, tigers, horses, wolves, monkeys, and yes, dragons. They’re not just obstacles or eye candy, they each have their own behavior, their own essence as living and breathing creatures. The details are monumental: mile high trees stretch into the sky, floating mountains hang in midair, waterfalls tumbling down off their rocky flanks into oblivion. The details are tiny and delicate: enormous plants sucking down into the soil with a plop when touched, the gentle bioluminescence of the flowers at night, delicate semi-sentient spores floating like oversized dandelion dust on the breeze. The genius isn’t in any one thing, or in the scenic perfection, it’s in the uniqueness, the creativity. This is not Vancouver or Mexico shot on location. By force of vision, will and technology Cameron has dreamed something magnificently alien into existence.
The Na’avi themselves are beautiful creations, all long limbs, grace, and violence. Cameron manages to imbue them with a nuanced culture, emphasizing their primitiveness and balance with their world, but never crossing that line into noble savage cliche. They’re grounded in reality, their notions of balance not rooted in the spiritual but in the nature of a world in which each life form can interface with every other. If you can feel the pain and joy of the life around you, you have no moral choice, no selfish choice even, other than empathy.
Our protagonists walk amongst them, remotely plugged into avatars, vat-grown bodies with DNA mixed from natives and the human operators. Though entirely computer generated, the Na’avi look real, not CGI. Their faces look like their human operators warped into alien form. It’s not just a clever and expensive trick, it means that the audience can tell each of the aliens apart just as they can tell human faces apart. Their faces emote with the detail of human expression, the actors’ every tic mapped onto their Na’avi counterpart, something impossible to coax out of makeup or create from scratch with computer artists.
Sam Worthington carries his own as Jake Sully, the paralyzed former marine who becomes the first to ever gain true acceptance with the Na’avi. He begins happy to provide intelligence to the military, but slowly realizes that he’s found something in the Na’avi world that he’s been missing his entire life. His world becomes inverted, his life with the Na’avi the real one, his groggy shoveling of food and filing of reports in a crippled human body the nightmare world. His body atrophies, his desperation grows. Sigourney Weaver plays the chief scientist, who slowly morphs from grudgingly accepting Jake to lovingly nurturing his real body while he’s under.
The film never feels long even though it runs for over two and a half hours. It catapults you directly into a rich world and manages an exquisite balance of pounding action mixed with reflective quiet. The exploration of the world continues throughout, comfortable enough with its richness that it doesn’t feel a need to mechanistically treat everything interesting as a Chekov’s gun.
All the same, the film is not perfect. The villains are far too one-dimensional, veering towards the cartoonish. Anyone who doesn’t know that the arrogant asshole meathead with facial scars is the villain of the piece the moment he walks on screen probably still believes in Santa Claus. The scientists are saints, the corporate drones are selfish profit-mongers, the soldiers (except for the two well known actors) are violent war-mongers. There was a chance in the story for more gray areas. Humanity is dying on a dead world, why not flood Pandora with desperate human refugees instead of clear antagonists and protagonists? The themes still work, the story even largely still works, it just could have been much deeper than it was without breaking with the vision of the film.
The motif of “avatars” is layered throughout the film, the distinction between mind and body. The mind is the spark that drives the body, the essence behind the dumb meat and metal. The scientists interface with their Na’avi bodies, the soldiers their power armor, the Na’avi their horses and dragons. The difference of course is in the give and take, whether the link is the enslavement of a tool or the partnership between two beings. The core of the story is the difference between a culture of slavery and a culture of empathy.
James Cameron has accomplished something truly extraordinary in Avatar. He has created in the flesh something completely new. It resonates with the influence of a hundred science fiction novels from Hyperion to The Dragonriders of Pern. The story could be more nuanced but so could that of The Lord of the Rings or every fairy tale ever written. We make movies so that others can see the visions we dream with their own mind’s eye. James Cameron has painted his upon this film.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.