James Cameron, the new king of CGI, wrote and directed the Science Fiction Fantasy epic, Avatar. There are no doubts now that, Avatar has at the very least set the bar for future CGI movies if not the Science Fiction Fantasy genre. It has been out in theaters one weekend and has already grossed $232 million, catapulted movie making to a new level, won the hearts of fan boys everywhere and possibly replaced George Lucas for the throne of Geekdom. The last part came from George Lucas’ best friend, Steven Spielberg.
The movie is about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a paraplegic ex-marine that can’t afford new legs. His twin brother, now dead, was part of a group of scientists lead by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), who is reprising her role from Gorillas In The Mist. The scientists are part of the Avatar program, where humans virtually inhabit the bodies of Na’vi clones, to study their way of life. Like most scientific studies, they are funded by a corporate entity that isn’t interested in the scientific benefits but the economic ones. Jake’s brother was the crucial element in this program, the carefully groomed scientist to perfectly infiltrate their culture. The only problem is the avatars are matched to the person for whom they were created after; Jake is the only one that can inhabit his brother’s avatar. So the Corporation finds Jake and recruits him rather than spend more money training another qualified scientist. Do you see where this is going? I hope so because I’m getting frustrated trying to figure out how to describe the movie succinctly.
The greatest strength of this movie is not the CGI but the world created by James Cameron. In an interview with slashfilm.com, Cameron mentioned wanting to create a world much like J.R.R. Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and he succeeded. It is obvious that Cameron took ten years to create this film. It is not just a culture that he created but a whole ecosystem full of different species of animals, insects, flora and fauna. [Largely inspired by his research for Titanic and The Abyss.] Every detail is taken into account right down to the gravitational pull of Pandora’s nearest orbiting planet.
Second is the CGI and 3D motion capture, Cameron really has changed the way movies will be made from now on. The level of detail is remarkable. There are close ups of the Avatars where I swore they could be actors in make up. I screamed with glee, in my head, when I saw a close up of Jake’s Avatar wiggling his feet. It looked just like a real foot! Or a close up of Jake’s avatar and I could see his pores. On top of this the 3D motion capture not only captured the physicality of the actors it captured their facial expressions. The 3D motion capture brought the actor’s nuanced facial expressions to the avatars, something that hasn’t been seen before in a CG film.
Pandora is seen through the eyes of Jake Sully, a broken uneducated soldier. It is the restrictions of his physical condition which serve as the crux of his motivation throughout the whole movie and gives the audience the opportunity to experience Pandora the same as Jake. Because he is disabled and can’t afford medical care to replace his legs he is a shell of his former self. There are many moments where we see Jake hoists himself up into the pod where he controls his avatar and in that moment we see his brittle atrophied legs. Jake is of no use in his condition as a soldier. In one of the earlier scenes, he is on a transport ship with a platoon of able bodied soldiers. Once they land; the bay doors open and the soldiers easily exit while Jake has to wait for them to exit so he can pull out his wheel chair and roll himself out. He is called “Special K” by an officer hurrying him off the transport ship. He is seen alone. He says, ‘once a marine always a marine,’ but there isn’t any sense of camaraderie between him and any of the soldiers. Without family and rejected by his chosen career he is lost in life. Most people have at one time or another have felt like life has thrown us a couple of lemons or like we don’t quite fit in. This helps us to empathize with Jake.
Also, because Jake was called on this mission at a moment’s notice he has no idea what he is getting into, only that he will get new legs if he accomplishes his task. Jake experiences the world of Pandora much like we would, with awe and curiosity. There were several moments where Jake acts on behalf of the audience running, jumping and touching everything insight once he is let loose in the jungles of Pandora.
Despite its detailed setting, CGI and fleshed out protagonist, Avatar does have weaknesses. The biggest weakness of Avatar is in the plot, unfortunately. It’s derivative. I have heard it compared to other movies such as: Dances With Wolves, Dune, Fern Gully, The Last Samurai, etc. About a half hour into the movie you know what will happen. But a derivative plot isn’t a deal breaker, though. Every movie is derivative if it is broken down to one sentence. Family Guy is derivative of The Simpsons which is derivative of The Honeymooners. Fringe is derivative of The X-files and Lost. Should we stop making movies because the basic plots are similar? Is it even possible to create a story that is completely original from top to bottom?
Another weakness is the characterization. For the most part, the characters are one dimensional, especially the human characters. Gionvanni Ribisi’s and Stephen Lang’s characters are cut and dry bad guys. Ribisi plays the sleazy suit that only cares about the money. Ribisi at times adds a little depth with a regretful look at the end but it doesn’t amount to a fully realized character. Lang is the hard ass, politically incorrect, kill’em all and let god sort’em out, straight out of Full Metal Jacket commander. Lang, unlike Ribisi, embraces his inner bad guy and runs with it. They are both characters that you love to hate. Thus we empathize with the Na’vi even more. It doesn’t make for interesting writing but it serves the purpose of the story.
Avatar is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but what it does, it does well. So well that it makes its blemishes stand out like a pimple on an otherwise perfect face. Look past the imperfections for what it is, a simple yet good story with stunning visuals.