Spoiler Warning: This review will include plot details revealed in the theatrical trailer.
Five years and $300 million in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar has finally arrived. The film takes place in 2154, when a completely industrialized Earth has sent a massive and militarized mining party to a lush forest moon called Pandora. The moon is rich with native flora and fauna, but it is also rich with unobtainium – a term originally developed as a humorous stand-in for a valuable and impossible compound, but which is used quite literally here. Unfortunately, there is also a massive indigenous population of intelligent, tree-dwelling, ten-foot-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, a tribe of which lives directly on top of the richest deposit of the precious material.
So naturally, we need them to move. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is tapped to join the Avatar program, the brainchild of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The avatars are Na’vi bodies grown and designed to be piloted by humans via a neural link. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the abominable head of security, and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the shrewd mining administrator, order Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi village and gain their trust, and find a way to convince or force them off their land. In the course of doing so, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a Na’vi princess who agrees to show him the ways of her people.
And that’s where I’ll stop with the plot description… If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for this film, you already knew all that and more. In fact, there was very little mystery going into this film. Even the technology developed for it was subject to significant hype. A new and proprietary 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace, motion capture like Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf (minus the creepiness and dead eyes), and an impressive array of creature design.
So did it live up to the hype? By many of my usual standards, no. The plot was indeed quite familiar – “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves” is the popular phrase, although I’d include a few shades of Independence Day (we’re the hostile aliens; the White House is a huge freaking tree). Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the storytelling bumbles along with some atrociously scripted exposition scenes, in which Sully alternates between voiceover and speaking directly into the camera (under the auspices of recording “video logs”). The nobility of the Na’vi, the superiority of their way of life, the ineffectuality of trying to convince them to move from their home – every plot point of this film is vomited forth in flowery, excruciating detail. Mercifully, these scenes don’t last very long, and they are balanced with some adept performances.
Zoë Saldaña is the standout, giving an absolutely sublime performance as the Na’vi princess Neytiri. Sam Worthington is enjoyable when he’s not delivering plodding exposition, and Sigourney Weaver is fantastic as the inexplicably chain-smoking scientist. Stephen Lang delivers a fun, scenery-chewing performance of the absurdly one-dimensional Colonel, who supervises an invasion between sips of his hot, steaming mug of eeeeeeevil, and Giovanni Ribisi portrays the administrator with such a comical level of callousness that he absolutely steals every scene he’s in.
So only one question remains… Was the visual spectacle of this film enough to make up for its shortcomings? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. In addition to the technical achievements above (on which I could spend several more paragraphs), I could not take my eyes off a single frame of this film, and I spent most of my first viewing completely awestruck with my mouth hanging halfway open. James Horner blankets this film with a fantastic score – easily the most rich and majestic I’ve heard since John Williams did Jurassic Park. And the world is simply stunning. It’s as if Cameron saw the BBC’s Planet Earth and thought to himself… I can do better than that. He clearly adores bioluminescence, as it is featured beautifully (and pervasively) in this film. With Pandora, Cameron has created an absolute Eden – a rich and savage world with a complex ecosystem.
What’s more, he has crafted a fascinating (and literal) representation of Gaia – the notion of an entire planet as a single, complex organism. The Na’vi are a fantastical, idealized version of humanity, acting as symbiotic shepherds rather than masters of their environment. They sport a long braid of hair which conceals a hidden strand of nerves that can spring forth and attach to other life forms. This has allowed them to make use of a variety of creatures, including land-based and flying mounts, which they can control telepathically through the link. Even the trees of Pandora form a vast network of neurons and synapses – even more than exist in the human brain. The Na’vi refer to this network as Eywa, their goddess, and can use their neural links to speak to the planet directly.
And this may be the most fascinating thing about the Na’vi. They worship a god whose existence is absolutely certain – to both human science and Na’vi faith. Even an afterlife is assured, as they can use their neural links to upload their memories to Eywa when they die. And what’s more, the Na’vi are extremely resilient. They can move fast, jump high, and survive every peril this world can offer. And their every need – food, water, a safe place to sleep – is largely tended to by their ecosystem. Disease is conspicuously absent, even in a world of rampant, unprotected, telepathic hanky-panky. The Na’vi exist in an absolute Eden. They want for nothing and have no fear of death.
So what can humanity offer them? We try all the usual trappings of human progress – roads, schools, hospitals… But according to Sully, the Na’vi have no use for these things.
Humanity’s definition of progress has always been a bit muddy, but it seems to entail both exploration and mastery of its domain. To extend its reach – even to the stars – and to increase its population and lifespan. The Na’vi are often casually referred to as savages in this film, and I would argue that this is an apt term for them. They are wild and untamed, and we would probably call them a stagnant society. But in such a pristine environment – with no significant threats to the species or struggles within its society – our definition of progress completely falls apart. This is Avatar’s most fascinating theme, and yet simultaneously its least explored. We must take the film’s word on the superiority of Na’vi culture, since we are not privy to its stability in the long-term. And what’s more, we only gain the slightest idea of what state humanity is in.
But we can infer a great deal. It is implied that Earth is completely industrialized, and humanity is clearly still in the business of invasion, forced relocation, and wanton slaughter. In fact, this may be the most pessimistic sci-fi treatment of mankind ever put to screen. We aren’t wiped out by aliens, robots, nuclear war, or climate change. We live on, and apparently learn nothing.
Spoiler Warning: The following paragraph contains details about the film’s ending.
Colonel Quaritch does have one thing right – Sully does betray humanity in favor of the Na’vi – and yes, “betray” is the correct word. He even abandons his crippled human body in favor of a more powerful (and undamaged) Na’vi body. In the end, he purges every trace of humanity from himself, referring to his former race as “aliens” and supervising their eviction from Pandora to return to their “dying planet”. I’ll grant that with this branch of mankind acting as usurpers and destroyers, it’s hard to argue with Sully’s decision. But in the end, this film relies upon some disturbing implications of the intrinsic cultural supremacy of the Na’vi. And given their blatant allegorical resemblance to Native Americans, this comes dangerously close to relegating the film to the ineffectual, self-hating bin of white guilt.
While Avatar‘s societal allegory has a few problems, it nonetheless boasts some provocative and effective environmental themes. And on a technical and creative level, James Cameron has brought a marvelous vision to life with this film, and it will surely impact cinema for years to come. If it is successful enough that Cameron can finish his planned trilogy, I would certainly hope to see some of the above concerns addressed with additional storytelling. Avatar is an impressive spectacle, but it has merely teased us with the potential of its rich, engrossing world. It could eventually be the stuff of great science fiction.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10