It took me quite a while to get around to seeing this, the current biggest-grossing-film-ever. I considered seeing it on a number of occasions, and yet every time I was immediately interrupted by a little voice in my head asking, quite simply, "Why?" And I would remember, "Oh, yeah; this is that film with big blue cat people riding dragons, the one that looks like the cover art of every terrible sci-fi/fantasy paperback I've ever seen on the shelf." But at last I did see it, and it was essentially as I expected: not the mind-blowing experience many had claimed, nor absolute dreck as its knee-jerk detractors will insist so as not to be lumped in with the first group. It's a pretty average SF flick with fantastic production values. Actually, I could've skipped all of that description and gone with the shorter and simpler "It's a James Cameron film." That really does set the stage pretty clearly.
Sometime in the future, a deep-space vessel journeys to the distant world of Pandora. On this world is an element dubbed "Unobtanium," a term I most recently heard used in The Core, the most Roland Emmerichy movie ever made by someone who wasn't Roland Emmerich. It's incredibly valuable, and the ship is being sent to, well, defy its name and obtain it, but there's a catch. The deposit they wish to mine is right under the home of a tribe of indigenous people called the Na'vi, the aformentioned blue, dragon-riding cat people. Relations are strained between the races. To this end, biological replicas of Na'vi have been grown, and technology has been created to allow humans to remote-pilot, as it were, the homegrown alien bodies as though they were their own. Our hero, Jake Sully, becomes an unexpected addition to the Avatar program when his twin brother dies. The Avatar designed for his brother will also work for him; otherwise, it will go to waste. Despite being a soldier and not a scientist or diplomat, he gets accepted, not least because the military is clearly running the operation and would like nothing better than to have one of their own on the inside track. The natives have to be made to move, and it's Jake's responsibility to gather intel on their habits, habitat and possible weaknesses to ensure that nothing impedes the mining operation. Jake himself has his own motives: his own legs are useless, and the Avatar body will give him the freedom to literally move beyond his disability.
There's no denying that Avatar's special effects are amazingly impressive and realistic. I wouldn't dream of casting aspersions on the technical work done here, though part of what makes it so amazing is that we know it's fake. There are entire scenes, including environment and characters, which are fully computer-animated. The level of detail is astounding for the medium. Note the phrasing there: for the medium. I've seen equally convincing effects created using sets and miniatures paired with CG work: Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong comes to mind. Knowing that vast amounts of what we're seeing was never before the lens of a camera and has no reality outside of a computer is honestly impressive. However, I've seen films with acres of visual splendor before. We all have. At this point, I think we can start demanding that such films also be good for other reasons.
Jake, of course, becomes enamoured of the new life he has taken on, first because of his regained freedom, and later because of a deep appreciation for the Na'vi culture, which is all about communing with nature and empathy, a world envisioned by someone who's taken a whole lot of LSD and experienced ego death and the universal oneness of all things-Cameron's never admitted to any such thing, but it would hardly surprise me, except perhaps for the notion that his ego could ever die, even for a few hours. Jake's commander, a humorless man who's obviously the casual racist of his times, is disappointed by Jake's respect and allegiance to these "savages." Jake must make a choice, all painted in broad strokes. This is a story centered around a dilemma which cannot be clearly defined, because to do so would obviate the conflict Cameron needs in order to make it an action film. We hear that the Unobtanium deposit the expedition wants is the biggest within 200 kilometers. Does this mean that they've only surveyed a 200 kilometer radius, or that there are other equally rich deposits just 200 kilometers away? Considering that this expedition has come trillions upon trillions of miles across space already, I find it hard to imagine another measley 200 klicks being a real hardship. What, in fact, is the Unobtanium used for? There's a passing reference to the Earth being a "dying world;" is this substance possibly needed for Earth's survival, and if so, has anyone explained this fact to the natives? If they have, one must question the possibility that the Na'vi are a tribe of selfish jerks who'd let a whole other planet die before considering moving to another of the fifty billion trees on their own. These details are glossed over, because James Cameron has never been at home with ambiguity. His films are designed to make the audience come to his conclusion, rather than one of their own.
The real problem with Avatar, ultimately, is its one-dimensional characters. Everyone from Earth is an imperialist dick, except for our tiny band of heroes. From whence stem their respective attitudes? Jake's eventual sympathy for the Na'vi is understandable, but why was he okay with this blatant Trail of Tears allegory in the beginning? Who is this man, anyway? Sarah Conner had a personality; Jake Sully merely has an arc. Making matters worse is the vast amount of time we aren't even seeing the real character, and making them even worse is the fact that once we remember that his Avatar body isn't really him, we can't worry about his safety as he faces "life-threatening" scenarios that could otherwise be exciting. As the tribal chieftan's daughter, Zoe Saldana, to her credit, manages to act through her digital intermediary quite effectively, but she's the only character who legitimately seems to be reacting to events as opposed to merely following a through-line. Even those praise-worthy digital effects beg a few hard questions: why, with limitless possibilities available, would you spend countless dollars and man-hours to digitally create aliens who look like people wearing makeup and funny contact lenses? Even if the end result is spectacular, it seems as though it's spectacular for no particularly good reason.
-review by Matt Murray