21 December 2009

Wishing I Was in Pandora Right Now: Movie Review of James Cameron's "Avatar"

Think back 13 years. It's 1993, in the summer. The First Gulf War is in full swing. The Montreal Canadiens have taken the Stanley Cup home for the 24th time. Yugoslavia? Yes, at this point in time, it's still a country. You decide to spend a couple of hours at the movie theater - there's this new film out that uses a heck of a lot of that new-fangled "CGI." That, and theaters are air conditioned; your house isn't. So you go and see Jurassic Park for the first time.
Remember that moment, early on in the movie, where Dr. Sattler is sitting in the front seat of the Jeep, marveling at this leaf she's found - a species that's been extinct for millions of years. The music swells. The camera pans up. And there's a brontosaurus right there. You share in the awe of the characters and chills run up and down your spine. For me, they still do.  To this day.
Now imagine that happening approximately every twenty to thirty minutes.
That's Avatar.

The Premise: A wheelchair-bound Marine, Jake Sully, is invited to be a part of the avatar program after his twin brother, Thomas, is killed.  The scientists begrudgingly make him their security detail, and it is through Jake that we learn about the Na'vi, the indigenous population of Pandora (the forest moon of one of the planets of Alpha-Centauri A).  The scientists are allowed to work on the planet in tandem with a human mining operation of "unobtainium".   The Na'vi's are deeply connected to their world, and their home is above a large deposit of this unobtainium.  It is from this "problem" that we get the film's main conflict.
This movie is too gorgeous to try to dumb it down as such, but think of the "going native" elements of Dances with Wolves, mingled with the unstoppable rush of air and beauty of FernGully, plus the unstoppable bad guy element of the Terminator.  I myself saw many parallels with the expansion of the American West, and, since that's been one of my obsessions of late, I was drawn in by that fact.

My favorites:
  • Besides the plot, obviously.  Though kind of predictable, I got wrapped up in the beauty of the place and pushed the plot aside, chalking it up to history repeating itself.
  • The red spiral plants and bioluminescant mosses of Pandora remind me of my scuba diving trip to Honduras, and of Christmas tree worms and night dives.  It's what I'll use to get my mother to the film.
  • The thanator, which I spent the entire film calling "the panther one!" and "kitty!"  Badass, terrifying, moves like a panther, but definitely has the face of an eagle or a velociraptor more like.
I think the only thing Cameron could have done better was explain the connections between the Na'vi, the creatures of Pandora, and their earth-mother-goddess Eywa. It is clear that there is a connection, and there are times that we see it or see where it would have been explained, but it isn't. I'm hoping this is in the deleted scenes.

For a James Cameron movie, it's a short film at about two and a half hours, not counting previews and a stop at the theater's bathroom afterward.  The movie progresses pretty quickly, and the only times it moves slow really are when Jake is not in his avatar, and must "check in" with his superiors - both the mercenaries at the mining operation, and the scientists.  I was only shocked by a few things, the most shocking being that this particular film did not make me cry.  I think that is the first time I have ever been able to say that about a James Cameron film - and I even cry when I watch The Abyss (and Terminator).  That is not to say I wasn't saddened by some of the things that happen over the course of the film.  I felt a profoundly deep sense of sorrow during this film.  I could feel my heart sink in ways it hasn't been able to in a long time.  But no tears.

All in all, on the blackjack scale, I give this film a 2, as in, I'd definitely hit it once, if not two more times.