Author: James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Obviously this film has been getting a lot of buzz and hype. The trailer didn’t reveal much to me: it didn’t turn me off, but didn’t get me excited, either, mostly because it revealed nothing about the story. I think that’s a mistake because the story is fascinating. The beginning of the film that sets up the story is a little confusing, which is a bummer, because it’s a terrific idea. Basically we have the Avatar project on a distant planet: humans remotely controlling alien bodies so they can pass as natives. That’s interesting, but not intriguing. But then we have twin brothers: one is a scientist trained for this mission and scheduled to go to the planet. An avatar body genetically linked to his DNA has been grown and it will only work with him. But then he’s apparently killed (a random mugging or something) so his twin brother (with identical DNA) is recruited. He’s a marine and has no scientific training, and even more interesting, he’s a paraplegic stuck in a wheelchair (he can’t afford spinal surgery to get his legs back). The beauty of that setup is two-fold: first, being disabled, the avatar project gives him his abilities back: while controlling the alien body he can run again, which is obviously tremendously appealing to him. Second, since he has no training about the world or the alien culture, he’s a stranger in a strange land. That works both for the story, in that he has no preconceived notions and is open for indoctrination by the natives, and it works for the audience, who get to see this new world through his eyes (we are like him, seeing everything for the first time). The heart of the story is not unique: it’s basically an environmental conflict between invaders and natives. The human invaders want to mine a rare ore, but the natives don’t understand or care and won’t get out of the way (their lands are sacred). The plot is very similar to The Battle for Terra, a digitally animated film from a few years ago. But I found the feeling of this film was much more like the epic Dances With Wolves. Instead of white men and Indians, this is science fiction set on another planet with an alien race, but the principles are the same. The human must infiltrate the alien tribe and become one of them, learning their ways and living the way they do. The experience is profound and exciting, for the alien world is brilliantly realized. Storywise, though there isn’t much new, it is so well done that it is emotionally powerful. I actually found myself tearing up in a scene or two. Of course one of the main talking points about this film is how much of it was done digitally: the entire alien planet as well as all of the aliens themselves, were created inside a computer. It didn’t seem that extraordinary in the trailer, but in the film itself I found myself immersed. I totally forgot that I was seeing digital people and just fell into the story. It’s incredible I could be emotionally moved by animated pixels! Truly impressive technology.
I should also add that the alien world is also incredibly impressive. The amount of work to create the fauna and species of a foreign planet is amazing. All the creatures and plants look fully real, too. It’s clear why this film took so long and cost so much to make.
I should put in my one criticism: why are the aliens so human-like? Sure they are ten-feet tall and blue, but they have the same humanoid structure, the same facial expressions, and even cry like humans. In real life, aliens are likely to completely different from us. They might be a gas or a rock or something like a spider or fish or bird. They wouldn’t necessarily have the same senses as us (they could be blind or have abilities we don’t) and we’d certainly find communication difficult (if not impossible). This is something I hate about most science fiction films and TV shows, but there it’s usually because it’s hard to find an actor to fit into a non-humanoid costume, so all the aliens are humanoid. This film, since it’s a digital creation, could have done anything for the aliens. But for some reason, Cameron chose to make them extremely human-like. I find that frustrating. (While that’s not a deal-breaker, it does weaken the power of the film for me. This could just as easily be a film from today with Westerners trying to force a native tribe off their Pacific island. There’s no reason at all it needs to be on another planet if the aliens are so human-like.)
Another minor criticism is that the environmental message can be a touch preachy at times, but fortunately there’s a practical reason the aliens value their land and environment more than just being nature-worshipers (on their planet, all living beings are psychically connected).
Overall, I was tremendously impressed. This film is not just a technological achievement, but it’s a great story well-told. The acting is excellent, the visuals are spectacular, and the action and drama is top notch. I urge you to see this film. I won’t say it’s the greatest film ever or anything like that. It’s very good. It actually is quite similar in tone to Cameron’s previous film, Titanic: it’s an epic with dramatic scenes and spectacular visuals and a solid-but-basic story anchoring everything. It’s worth seeing just for the experience (just like Titanic). It’s definitely a fun ride, but there are real emotions here. Two thumbs up!