Friday, December 18th, 2009: Opening day, make that opening morning. I queued up for a 10:15 AM show at the local AMC Cineplex, the first screening of the day. Not really much of a line, but by the time the Movie Talk, ads, Previews, and the admonishments about not creating your own soundtrack/silence is golden had ended, the house was about 2/3’s full. Not bad for a morning, a work day and a school day.
Seeing how the film’s director and screenwriter, the 55 year old James Cameron had been working on this film for a number of years, there has been tons of material – images, news releases, articles, and blogs about the film already available far in advance of opening day. I tried to stay clear of it, and succeeded.
This morning, intentionally breaking my own Avatar info boycott, I read just 2 reviews about the film prior to departing to go to the theater. The first was by the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, and the other was by Roger Ebert on his website. Both were quite positive so I was minimally armed to expect something good.
Avatar opens and instantly, or within moments we join the lead character, Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, as he is awakened after a deep sleep of at least a year. I immediately flashed on Alien and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Same sort of deal – we’re aboard a space craft, asleep in a pod – only without a cat, and without gravity.
We learn that they’re headed for the planet Pandora, it is the year 2154, The Earth and Corporate America need a certain elemental rock called unobtainium,which is sort of a neat name joke itself, and they’re going to take it away from Pandora with or without the consent or approval of the indigenous population, a humanoid race called the Na’vi.
We learn that Jake has been selected to replace his dead twin brother (DNA match you see), and will be utilizing the avatar machine – you climb into this high tech pod, you’re hot-wired into the machine, and while your body remains in the pod in a state of unconsciousness/sleep, your mind/spirit is now occupying the body of a Na’vi construct. Think Matrix.
For Jake this is a massive leap forward as in his own true body, he is a paraplegic. So on his first test run, he is giddy with the excitement of having a working useful body (his Na’vi avatar). Jake also comes to learn that there’s a contractual obligation – he must spy on the Na’vi so that they can be more easily defeated if it comes to war. In exchange for his services he is promised a new set of working legs for his real body.
He meets the base’s gung-ho military commander, a Col. Miles Quaritch, played by the muscular Stephen Lang. Think of an intense marine Drill Instructor, think of John Rambo, and think of all the military hardware and might that we saw in Star Wars, Aliens, and countless other films where military might has been in evidence. Once he says, “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen”, you know that you’ve just met Bad Guy Number One.
Bad Guy Number Two is the corporate honcho in charge of the mission – Parker Selfridge, again kind of a neat jokey name. He’s played by Giovanni Ribisi, and while the role is written to make you think of Paul Reiser as Carter Burke in Aliens (also directed by Cameron), I think this was a casting mistake. Ribisi is a tad light-weight for the role IMHO.
Speaking of Aliens, in that film we had a hulking, tough as nails, female Hispanic soldier. She was called Pvt. Vasquez. In this film we have a tough as nails female Hispanic helicopter pilot and she’s called Trudy Chacon.
So that’s the set-up. Jake sully is ‘beamed down’ to the planet’s surface, has no idea as to what he’s up against in terms of the flora and fauna and all the varied dangerous animals that live on this world. He has no idea that he’s supposed to be ‘lunch’ for one of those creatures. Soon he’s in trouble. His ass is saved by a female Na’vi called Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana.
She brings him back to her people who live deep in the forest. They know he is similar to them in appearance but is not one of them. So distrust and fear are immediately brought into play.
Well from this point on, Avatar becomes another picture. Sure, the technical wizardry is better than anything you have ever seen before. The CGI world is easily the best ever. Think of the jungles and mountains of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, only this is not only other worldly but far superior. And the CGI Na’vi people are absolutely amazing as they’re individualistic unlike the robots in I Robot, they’re expressive, some can speak English while other speak only their own language. Gollum of the Lord of the Rings may come to mind as another CGI creature, but he was small, and ugly, while these people are tall, stately, and beautiful.
My point about Avatar becoming another picture – think of Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves.
The trick to enjoying this film, and you surely will, is to not concentrate on the story as the ‘good guys’ will triumph as they always do, to not think that you’ve seen this story before – which you have, but this time all the characters that you’ll care about look different. So don’t be too hard on Cameron. This film is really about telling a story visually rather than by what the characters are saying.
To better your enjoyment, please remember that even though you will recognize instantly whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy, this is not a deal-breaker; and one more. Yes, Sigourney Weaver is in this film and is an important character, just don’t expect Ripley – it’s not happening.
The Na’vi are a race from another planet – yes this is the case, but they’re not the ones who are the aliens. We are.