Set on the physics-defying jungle world of Pandora, the movie stars Sam Worthington (Marcus, Terminator: Salvation) as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine recruited for a science project that projects human minds into cloned bodies that mix human DNA with genetic material from the Na’vi, a race of 10-foot-tall blue, cat-like people who inhabit Pandora. A sociology team is studying Na’vi, while a military-industrial conglomeration is mining the world for a valuable mineral (an obvious McGuffin with the unlikely name Unobtianium). Jake is also recruited by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to gather intel on the Na’vi in case the military ever needs to take action. Jake does his job — for Dr. Augustine’s science team and Quaritch – but perhaps a little too well. More than merely learning from the Na’vi, he goes native. And falls in love with Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, who played Uhura in this summer’s Star Trek).
Cameron is a master at world-building. Part of the reason the running time is so long is because he is willing to devote time to exploring Na’vi culture. Jake’s assimilation is not covered in a quick montage; he spends months there, and we explore the planet right alongside him as he becomes immersed in Na’vi spiritual culture. Cameron understands that it is important to like the Na’vi if we are going to root for them. And you will cheer for them.
The contrast between the peaceful, nature-worshipping Na’vi, with their loincloths, spears and bows, and the rapacious corporation with its armor and machine guns is at the heart of the film, and yes, that story is overly simplistic: the Na’vi are noble, and the military-industrialists have no honor. Most of it plays like a restaging of the Vietnam war, with a mechanized force scouring a jungle for indigenous enemies. The tale comes dangerously close to the “noble white man saves the minority” cliché, but that is just one of the familiar tropes Cameron employs. As soon as Jake commits to being a spy, you just know he will eventually have to confess his duplicity to his new pals, etc. The very best sci-fi/fantasy stories use their preternatural trappings as metaphors to discuss real-world issues, and while many films tackle racism more effectively (See District 9), I give Cameron credit for trying to include a larger theme. Another way to look at it is, the linear story allows the viewer to turn off the analytical portion of the brain and revel in the visual cortex.
The avatars themselves are somewhat creepy at first, because they resemble the actors in a way that seems slightly…unnerving (especially Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Augustine). But you quickly get used to it, and the likenesses help make the elongated blue bodies relatable. Worthington and Saldana are excellent voice actors, and the avatars are incredibly detailed; you can see Neytiri’s tummy move as she breathes.
The spectacular images are almost overwhelming. This film gives new meaning to the idea of a “visual feast.” I cannot recommend the 3D version highly enough, because the multidimensional elements are not merely gimmicky; Cameron does not find an excuse to have someone throw something at the audience every two minutes. Instead, he shot the film with 3D in mind, so each scene is a carefully composed tableau with foreground elements extending into the viewer’s lap, placing you amidst the action. And there is plenty of action: Neytiri and Jake are always running or fighting. The military ships are sturdy and bristling with guns and soldiers in exo-skeletons. Pandora, with its poison atmosphere, is designed as a visual wonderland – clearly much thought was put into making the flora and fauna as engaging as possible. There are huge creatures, scary creatures and delicate creatures. Pandora features soaring sights and vertigo-inducing drops. Look for bright colors, unexpected designs and tiny details.
Which is actually a good way to look at Avatar, in all of its 161-minute glory: On the surface it is all shock and awe, but look closer, and you will see a spectacular details that make this mission worth worth taking.