CAPSULE: CAPSULE: AVATAR is very much a DANCES WITH WOLVES set on an alien world. It brings to the screen some great imaginative sequences and some great lapses in imagination. It is about great evils in our past, but becomes a simplistic and self-righteous polemic. Like James Cameron's previous film, TITANIC, there are enough good bits to make a really great film and enough bad bits to make a real stinker. Go for what is good and ignore the bad. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Spoiler warning: There are some spoilers in this review.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, what I considered the most beautiful science fiction images would show up on the cover of the science fiction magazine ANALOG. An artist named Jack Schoenherr painted many of these covers. To me science fiction worlds and alien species looked exactly like Jack Schoenherr painted them. Science fiction films always fell a little short of creating that imagery, though I felt his influence in STAR WARS, DUNE, and LOST IN SPACE. (Admittedly this art was not all by Schoenherr, but it still showed his influence.) James Cameron is the first director to create a world in a science fiction film that reminds me of Analog. AVATAR has the most fully visually realized science fiction world I can remember in a science fiction film. Cameron has envisioned a beautiful alien world complete with only semi- Earthlike creatures. Some of his images could be from ANALOG and some from Cameron's own film THE ABYSS. There are dragons and forest predators. There are horses and flying reptiles. The film is a joy to look at. But it is not an unalloyed joy. The visuals still had their problems. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The year is 2154 and Earth humans have a mining operation on the alien world Pandora. Huge machines move the earth operated by men who must wear masks in this atmosphere. The goal of the mining is to get even miniscule amounts of the valuable mineral unobtanium. The mining operation is running into trouble from the local population, the Na'vi, who are so-called "savages". They are on about the level of sophistication that the Native Americans were when the Europeans came to the New World. The natives want the mining operation to stay out of their sacred lands. To study the local people Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) uses Avatars. These are alien-like bodies that humans when asleep, can project their minds into. The humans basically created alien bodies for themselves. One human who does this is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine and now a paraplegic. He no longer can have a good life as a human so after some coercion he agrees to project his sleeping mind into an alien avatar. But being able to put himself in the place of the Na'vi things go much the way they did in DANCES WITH WOLVES or THE WILBY CONSPIRACY or DISTRICT 9. He begins to appreciate them as people and to respect their culture. Each film goes much the same way and makes the same statement. There never is any doubt that that is what Cameron, who wrote AVATAR as well as directed, is going to do with this story. What surprised me was how heavily and pretentiously he lays on this message.
Now what did I dislike about the visuals? Well, the aliens are basically human-like with faces and tails like big cats. This goes back to the imagery described by Edgar Rice Burroughs whose alien creatures on Mars were chimera-like combinations of Earth creatures. How likely is it that something would evolve with human bodies and cat faces? How much different would the story have been had the combination been pigs with cat faces? We have that "Star Trek" conceit working for us that almost all aliens look like us. The females all had luscious bodies that were only minimally covered. It is convenient that in their culture they have chosen to cover the same anatomical bits that we do. And there seem to be loose-hanging bits of their harem-like costumes. Somehow they are not all scratched up. It makes for enjoyable images, but it does not take much thinking. The animals of the planet come in shapes and much like variations on Earth creatures. When we see a native horse, there is no doubt in our mind that it is a horse even if its lines are somewhat different. It has six legs, but it still is obviously a horse. Cameron does not stray too far from Earth animals on Pandora.
The story is very much like the history of what happened to Native Americans in our own country, very likely the Lakota of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The had their sacred lands, and they were sitting on the their own version of "unobtanium", namely gold. But there is in the film no one who asks if the situation is not a lot like how the Native Americans were treated in the Americas and isn't history's verdict that that was a terrible injustice? It is possible that a supremely irresponsible government might ignore the rights of the indigenous population, but that nobody even notices the parallels needed some serious explanation in the script and it is just not there. Cameron takes shots at the American military (or the government) from the Indian Wars up to the Iraq War. He makes a comment about how we find some resource we want and then declare the people who have it "the enemy". I may sometimes feel that was the reason, but it is a bit of an oversimplification. Even if I agree with Cameron, I respect the alternative view and not think this particular piece of politics belongs in this film. Ironically, the same corporation that brings you Fox News produced the film. The Fox Corporation is so big occasionally pieces it try to sue other pieces and have to be reminded that a company should not sue itself.
Some problems could have been fixed. Apparently cigarettes and attack helicopters will be a lot the same in 2154 as they are today. So will be phrases like "in *this* economy" and "shock and awe" that are more from our time than of 2154.
AVATAR is what I call a film of high standard deviation. Parts and aspects of the film are a lot better than other parts. So with some ambivalence I give AVATAR a middling rating of high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0499549/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/avatar/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper