Avatar (3.5 of 4)

                  Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic United States soldier, who is chosen to “pilot” an avatar. The avatar is a synthetic body of a Na’vi alien. It becomes his mission to go to Pandora, the planet where the Na’vi live and learn about them so he can ask them to “move away” from the location of the planets biggest and most lucrative deposit of Unobtainium, a metal that humans want very badly (a classic MacGuffin).

                Turns out that the Na’vi people don’t want to be kicked out of their life-long home, this should not be a surprise, but it does surprise the US businessman and US military sent to Pandora.

               Jake Sully, through his experiences in the avatar body, begins to see the culture of these alien people for what it really is, pure and peaceful. His guilt for his role in their destruction leads him to abandon his military duties and fight on behalf of the Na’vi against the invading humans.

                    The movies central message is two-fold but fairly straight-forward in both circumstances. One, don’t take things from other people. Two, respect nature.

                  From this point on Avatar sort of slowly devolves into blanket generalizations and contrived characters that should be familiar to any movie-goer.

                   Essentially Avatar makes a native, naturalist people group out to be pure or perfect, and makes the humans out to be the evil and menacing hands of iron and steel. This can be compared to many things. Early Americans taking American Indian land, the industrial world destroying the planet, our involvement in the Middle East… The problem with the movie is that the “pure” people aren’t really that pure.

               If you take a closer look at the world of Pandora and the Na’vi, they are as bigoted as the humans are. They do try to kill Jake Sully even when he looks like one of them let’s not forget. The Na’vi people fear change and hate outsiders who might influence them; this is foolish pride not pure-heartedness.

                 Avatar also reverses roles so blatantly it’s shameful. The more advanced civilization, the humans, has no understanding and no regard (besides Jake and Sigourney Weaver’s character) for the weaker and less developed civilization. However, the Na’vi, an extremely undeveloped civilization, have more (strangely enough) humanity. It is amazing to me that a civilization that can travel the universe and withstand hundreds of years of political, social and cultural turbulence (like the US has) is so naïve to other civilizations needs. Not to mention it is supposed to be 2154, according to the video logs Jake Sully must keep.

            I’d like to back up a bit and make a point about how unlikely it is for Jake Sully to be chosen for this mission anyway. According to the movie he was selected because his doctor brother (who is talked up so much he’s practically a demigod) was killed. Tragic, I know, don’t worry Jake doesn’t seem to really care too much about his dead bro. In fact, it’s never mentioned. But they choose to let him pilot the avatar because it would simply be too expensive to make another one—give me a break. Too expensive? Too expensive to make a new avatar for someone actually qualified to do work on another planet with an alien civilization? Sure, I’ll buy that hook line and sinker.

            As many complaints as I have for the story of Avatar, which has plot holes bigger than the Hallelujah Mountains, it is a fairly spectacular movie.

            The excuse of a plot the movie has becomes almost obsolete when meshed together with the special effects, acting (for the most part), visuals, shot framing and cinematography. 

            James Cameron is a master of mise en scene. Every shot is framed in a way that shows exactly what the audience wants to see. Everything on screen seems to interact with the characters. The planets’ foliage is sensitive to touch, so when characters walk on grass or brush past a small shrub it illuminates itself in response. This sort of intense depth of environment and actor interaction becomes a purposeful trademark of the film.  

            The planet is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement of the movie. It is spectacular. It’s a futuristic Garden of Eden, complete with exotic animals and a perfect people. A still of nearly any shot in the movie would be like an artist’s masterpiece painting.

            The camera work (or at least how a camera would have worked, had most of the movie not been CGI) is remarkable. It moves around in the environment like a lofty dream. Stand out scenes are the flight sequences with Jake’s new dragon friend, the ending battle-sequence and the first moments of Jake in the avatar body.

            The view the camera has is impossible to achieve without CGI, but Cameron shows it is not impossible to imagine. From dizzying camera techniques in his first moments as a Na’vi to the incredible angles presented in the flight sequences. The speed and the accuracy of the cinematographers and Cameron’s framing are breathtaking. The audience in the theater gasped at multiple points.

           Even some close-ups of characters have a sort of magic about them. The lead Na’vi woman pulling back on her bow-strings or the US Army commander sipping coffee in his warship, shots like these make the film all-the-more powerful when we are shown sweeping establishing shots.

           The editing is nearly flawless. Fast paced back and forth dialogue, combat, chases, wide-to-tight angles and they all are seamless. There is not a noticeable cut in the movie it just feels right. Somehow at the same time transitions are achieved in a classic way bringing attention to the shift as well as the content of the screen.

             The social message of the film is extremely important to Cameron. Avatar becomes a sort of soap-box at points for a message of an eco-friendly and culturally diverse utopian ideal. Avatar ever so slowly says: “We must respect the world we live in and the people of it, lest we loose it forever.” And while at times the message is lost in the explosions and hand-to-hand robot combat, it resurfaces in the end with a reminder that there is still good in humanity.

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