Until I saw Avatar, I didn't realize how much the movies have missed James Cameron. But we know now his time away was not wasted since his last feature film, 1997's Titanic.
Cameron has spent the last several years preparing for and creating Avatar, a project that required the director to wait for technology to catch up with his vision and invent new filming technologies and techniques—including a new method of motion capture that records every muscle movement of the actors.
The results show; Jar Jar this is not. The computer-generated blue aliens are lifelike, emotive and convincing. Let me put it this way: a computer-generated creature voiced by Sigourney Weaver looks so much like her (but younger) that I thought maybe Cameron found a way for her to reprise her role as Ripley for an Alien prequel.
Right away, the look is special—and it only gets better. The realistic and beautiful world created by Cameron is a must-see, a definite milestone in movie technology. Perhaps the greatest compliment to give is that the look is so natural and absorbing, you don't think about how it's not real. You think, It'sjust a movie filmed on Pandora. Future filmmakers will look on this movie's advancements a bit like filmmakers now view Star Wars. With 3D scenery that surrounds the viewer, strange creatures visibly breathing, and thrilling fantasy creations like riding dragon-like birds into battle, this is as much an experience as a movie.
Full of that rare movie magic which can transport, entertain and intrigue, this sci-fi fantasy is a fun amusement park ride that emerges you into a fresh, brilliant new world and ignites your imagination. But it doesn't matter how shiny and pretty your world is if no one wants to be there. Thankfully, I was surprised by how quickly I was swept up into the universe and simple story of Avatar.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) is a paralyzed ex-marine persuaded by his brother, Tommy, to join him on the legendary and dangerous planet of Pandora. Tommy is a contracted scientist and Jake is looking to do any grunt work he can find. However, when Tommy can't fulfill the contract he signed with the corporation, Jake takes over for him. The job? "Driving" Tommy's avatar—a mash-up of Tommy's DNA and that of Pandora's primitive indigenous species, the Na'vi—though a nervous system link. By looking like the Na'vi, these avatars are the company's best chance to study Pandora and to make nice with the locals. But the corporate interests aren't really about goodwill—the company is looking for any way to get the Na'vi out of the way of mineral excavation. After all, ex-marine Jake seems to be the ideal tactical spy with the perfect covert cover to help eliminate the Na'vi complication.
As many have suspected from the trailer, this is Dances with Wolves in space: Tough solider Jake learns the Na'vi way, falls in love, and chooses which side he should really join when the inevitable clash comes. We all know this story; we've heard this tale of walking a mile in other's shoes. There's not much new in Avatar's plot for anyone who's seen many movies. Sensing this from the trailers had dampened the enthusiasm and hopes of many moviegoers looking forward to Avatar—including myself. It appeared to be all flash, little substance—another big loud actioner with little heart or sense.
We of little faith. James Cameron may not be greatest writer (several lines in Titanic still make me cringe) or one known for original and complicated plotlines (some of his best films can be summed up as bad thing comes after good guy), but he is one of Hollywood's best storytellers in terms of using all sides of the cinematic journey (visuals, story, music, etc.) to stir and capture imaginations for a satisfying ride. As a friend of mine put it, "When we first heard about Titanic, we thought it'd be a cheesy, predictable soap opera love story—and it was, but it was a well-done cheesy, predictable soap opera thanks to the writing, acting and spectacle." And that's the case here: it's not perfect, but it's familiar, simple territory that's well tread.
Cameron knows how to hit the right emotive buttons and weave an effective story. He understands the importance of archetypes. He creates characters with whom you can relate and care about. He knows your heartstrings and pulls them appropriately. And he squarely focuses on elements that support his story; no shot is wasted and no bit of shared info is unimportant. These qualities are what bring greater satisfaction out of plain stories that could, in other hands, be the sort of big-budget messes that critics disdain for being all effects and no substance (yes, I am thinking of the Transformers franchise).
Given the obvious references to Native American culture, it's not a big shock that Avatar is chiefly a celebration of nature and call to protect it. Similarly, any Cameron fan expects certain modus operandi: using violence to preach anti-violence (Terminator 2 and to a degree, The Abyss) and spending millions of dollars to warn of corporate greed (Aliens). However, what I didn't expect in terms of Avatar's themes were the major political and spiritual themes.
As the film's corporate security force prepares to eliminate the Na'vi, there are reference to "preemptive strikes," "shock and awe" and fighting "terror with terror." Because of these blatant earthly references cropping up in an otherwise fantasy setting, some will read the film as either anti-American, anti-Republican (or anti-Bush), or anti-progress. But I felt like Cameron was using these touch points to comment on something far broader: the human failings of greed and desire. Indeed, at the film's London premiere, Cameron said, "We have this tendency to just take what we want. And that's how we treat the natural world as well. There's this sense of we're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, therefore we're entitled to every damn thing on this planet. That's not how it works, and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural life on Earth."
This notion of natural balance plays into the movie's spiritual side. The Na'vi revere the natural world; believing the whole planet is connected and alive with energy. It's akin to personifying the Earth as Mother Nature, but can also feel like pieces of Native American spirituality, New Age mysticism, and Wicca. Some Christians will be bothered by the worship of the Na'vi's unseen female deity—there are scenes of worship, rituals, and prayer to her. But vagueness about this entity makes it possible to view her not as a New Age goddess but as just one more strange piece of fantasy in this alien world. In fact, there's suggestion that this entity is Pandora itself: one big, living alien.
One human character says, "We're not talking about pagan voodoo but something that is real biologically: a global network of neurons." This is supported by one of the movie's coolest bits of fantasy: a biological method in which all Pandoran plants and animals are able to link minds. (Just imagine being bodily and mentally connected with a horse as you rode it.) However, that same character later gives a vague and mystical reference that the goddess "is real and I'm with her." And so, the spiritual side of Avatar is a bit open-ended. Like with the political messages, I felt Cameron was using the story device of Na'vi spiritual life to illustrate bigger points: We're all connected by some unseen and wonderful spirit, nature is sacred, and it's our duty as the created to care for the rest of creation. And hopefully, we will be able to see the majesty and splendor of that creation even without 3D glasses.Discussion starters
- One alien character says, "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you are part of your people forever." What does that mean to you? How does that idea compare to Christian notion of being born again
- Does the spirituality of the Na'vi bother you? Why or why not? What is their belief system and how does it compare to the God of the Bible? Did you feel that the worship of the Na'vi God had parallels—intended or unintended—to your faith?
- At one point, a character says, "I'm not talking about pagan voodoo but something that is real biologically—a global network of neurons that the Na'vis can tap into." But later, this same person says, "I'm with her. She's real." What does this tell you about this spiritual presence on Pandora? Did you look at it as a spiritual being or as a strange alien creature?
- How would you sum up what Avatar says about nature and creation? Anything in that view bother you? How does it compare/contrast with how the Bible treats creation care?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Avatar is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. The battles are comparable to the Star Wars prequels. Humans, Na'vi, and animals die in various styles of battle and peril. Young kids could be scared by frightening creatures and their attacks on humans. The language includes several instances of taking God and Jesus' names in vain. The sensuality listed in the MPAA's rating refers to a scene of two Na'vi who have decided to "mate for life." They passionately kiss and are seen waking up next to each other. While the MPAA does not list nudity (presumably because it's computer generated), the animated bodies of the Na'vi are lifelike and often barely covered if at all. The Na'vi are very spiritual with what feels like a mix of Native American spiritually, New Age mysticism, and Wicca. There are a few scenes of characters worshiping and praying—some complete with chanting, ritually gyrating and even what seems like speaking in tongues.
Photos © 20th Century Fox
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