Avatar: My Spoiler-Free (Mostly) Mini-Review


It seems that every time James Cameron makes a new film, a significant portion of the filmgoing audience wants him to fail. It doesn’t hurt that he has made The World’s Most Expensive Movie three times now—first in 1991 with Terminator 2, then again in 1997 with Titanic, and now, once again, with this year’s Avatar. I guess people want to see somebody with that kind of hubris humbled. Me, I just want to see what the guy who gave the world Aliens has to show us next. In this case, with his newest film, he has shown us not so much The World’s Most Expensive Movie (rumoured to be in the neighbourhood of $500 million!), but The World’s Most Expensive Amusement Park Ride. That’s not necessarily a totally bad thing, but it doesn’t exactly make it a great motion picture, either.

     The plot of Avatar concerns a future where Earth has used up its natural resources, and is looking to distant worlds to provide its energy sources. On a faraway jungle moon called Pandora, a sinister corporation has found what it needs in a substance called, with a straight face, Unobtainium. Unfortunately, this stuff rests under the village of Pandora’s indigenous, intelligent lifeforms, a race of ten-foot-tall blue cat people called the Na’vi. However, the military-supported Company—personified by Giovanni Ribisi as a corporate sleazebag cut from the same cloth as Paul Reiser’s Burke in Aliens—has a plan to gain the Na’vi’s trust and get them to relocate by sending human envoys whose consciousness has been transplanted into genetically-engineered Na’vi bodies called Avatars. The film’s protagonist, Jake Sully (Terminator: Salvation’s Sam Worthington), is a wheelchair-bound ex-Marine who hopes that his assignment as an Avatar will earn him the money to have his legs restored; all he has to do is either convince the Na’vi to move their village so the company can mine the Unobtainium, or provide the company’s military, led by battle-scarred hardass Major Quaritch (Stephen Lang) with valuable intel that will point out the Na’vi’s weak spots if a military solution is required. Of course, Jake eventually goes native, falling in love with his warrior princess guide Neytiri (which is pretty easy when she’s played by Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana) and learning about how the Na’vi live in harmony with their world instead of stripping it of its natural resources. Torn between two worlds, Jake must find a way to keep the trigger-happy space Marines from wiping out the Na’vi.    

      If this sounds familiar, it should—take away all the sci-fi mumbo jumbo, and you’re pretty much left with the legend of Pocahantas and the screenplay for Dances With Wolves. Granted, there aren’t a lot of original stories left these days, but that does take a lot of the suspense out of the plot. The visuals are spectacular—the world of Pandora is brought to breathtaking life by Stan Winston Studios and WETA Workshop—but there is nothing surprising about the way Avatar’s plot unfolds. For instance, when Jake is told that only a handful of Na’vi have been able to tame and ride a ferocious flying creature, we in the audience of course know that Jake will pull it off when the time comes. When a particularly risky life-saving procedure is attempted (I won’t say more than that, in the interest of spoilers), it’s easy to spot the fact that we’re seeing it now so that it can be used again later at a crucial juncture. I saw Avatar in IMAX 3D, and it was worth the extra five dollars. The 3D immerses you so completely that you almost forget about it, only to find yourself occasionally startled at its seamlessness (there’s none of that “Hey, hand me a screwdriver!” foolishness that usually accompanies 3D movies). The revolutionary motion-capture process that took years to develop does result in digitally-created characters that are pretty much indistinguishable from their human counterparts. And, for Cameron fans, it’s a kick to see the director return to the familiar territory of military dropships and giant mechanized battlesuits, to say nothing of his reunion with Sigourney Weaver. However, just like the various beasts, environments, and military hardware that populate it, Avatar’s script could have just as believably been generated by a computer program. Every scene and every shot has been designed for maximum visual impact, but the impression it makes fades almost immediately. It’s a fun ride, particularly in larger-than-life 3D, but one that left me eager for a less predictable one.