So a few years ago I first started blogging with an idea of mine called ‘100 Days, 100 Films’ – where I made a list of my Top 100 films, watched one every day and would put up a review the day after. I got through all one hundred of them – and the reviews are utterly cringe worthy to read. Back then I had zero clue what I was doing or talking about. However I still think there’s something to the idea.
Avatar was a pop culture sensation that came out seven years ago. It was the film everyone was talking about. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing something Avatar-related. James Cameron first got the idea for it as far back as the mid-90s. However the technology required to create Pandora wasn’t quite as advanced at the time – and the project was shelved for years. After the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Cameron was convinced that the technology was finally up to speed. Avatar was shot mainly on a digital backlot against blue and green screen effects – with about 40% done in live action. Thus a huge portion of the hype came from this innovative way of shooting. And a lot of the criticism came from the accused shallowness of the main story. So let’s hop right in then.
We open with a narration – and sadly one of the worst attempts at an American accent you will ever hear in film. Our protagonist Jake Sully is played by Australian actor Sam Worthington. Now as you may have guessed from my comments about him in my Clash of the Titans review, I’m not one of those people who thinks he’s a terrible actor. The accent in this is terrible of course, but overall I don’t find his performance bad. It could be very easy to dislike Jake and find him insufferable. But throughout the film, Worthington does a good job of showing us the conflict Jake has between the humans and the Na’vi. At least I think so anyway. So going back to the film, we’re given a few shots that are like chocolate for you if you like the colour blue. And it’s our first indication that this is going to be a very visually-driven film.
Jake’s narration explains that he’s been transported to a faraway planet in space. His brother was a scientist with a PhD and set to go on a super-important mission in space. However he was recently killed in an armed robbery. And since he and Jake were twins, this leaves Jake as the perfect person to replace him. After Jake arrives at the destination, we also discover he’s paraplegic. A frequently asked question that seemed to really bug viewers back in the day was why Jake didn’t have an automatic wheelchair. But since that’s what I love to do, here’s two interpretations: a) Jake’s said to be living on veteran’s benefits so he might not be able to afford a better model, and b) as a former marine he might have voluntarily picked a manual one so as to exercise his arms. Oh and it’s also mentioned that there is a surgery to fix his spine – but he can’t afford it. Three guesses what a big part of his motivations will be…
We’re now introduced to Col. Quaritch, who will be acting as our villain for this feature. Not that you’d know it from audience reactions; due to Stephen Lang’s top drawer performance, a good portion of the viewers ended up rooting for him – much in the same way people like to imagine the likes of Heathcliff, Dracula, Sephiroth and other famous villains as merely misunderstood – rather than the ruthless bastards they usually are. Apparently Michael Biehn was one of the main choices for this role, but James Cameron chose to cast Stephen Lang – not wanting to make people think it was Aliens all over again. As much as I love Michael Biehn and I probably would lie down over a puddle to let him cross – Cameron made the right choice. Lang’s performance seems to be the only thing in the movie that doesn’t divide its audience.
Quaritch explains to the new arrivals – and by extension the audience – that he’s head of security. And it’s his job to keep everyone alive – due to the savage beasts and even more savage natives. But before we can be introduced to them, we meet Norm Spellman – one of Jake’s scientist buddies. We then meet the titular Avatars. These are special vessels built from the scientists’ own living tissues (hence why Jake can fill in for his brother). The scientists can project their consciousness into the bodies and interact with the native creatures – which the avatars after modelled after.
It turns out that the narrations are actually video logs done by Jake in the lab. And now it’s time to meet Dr Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver. Having worked with Cameron before on Aliens, Ms Weaver was undoubtedly used to his reputation as a…shall we say ‘intense’ director. So she decided to base her character off Cameron himself. She’s described Grace as a “brilliant, approach-driven, idealistic perfectionist” – who of course isn’t the most polite individual, but does have a nice heart underneath. And she coincidentally reminded me very much of my science teacher in high school – something which I told the woman herself (though I never found out if she ever saw the film). Grace establishes herself as a resident bitch with a heart of gold by being perfectly civil to Norm but perfectly…er…not to Jake. He doesn’t help his cause by answering how much lab training he’s had with:
“I dissected a frog once.”
Grace of course does not want to be out-snarked by a jarhead dropout so she exits the scene with the following line:
“They’re just pissing on us without even the courtesy of calling it rain.”
It turns out that ‘they’ is Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi. He’s the…well the film never actually explains what it is that Parker does for the company. What he does for the film itself is provide some handy exposition on why everyone is there – Grace tried to build a school and teach the Na’vi English but it backfired due to the fact that trigger-happy marines were sent out as escorts. Parker also informs us that the reason humans are on Pandora in the first place is the search for Unobtainium.
For those who don’t know, Unobtainium is a stock material that pops up in a lot of sci-fi stories. We’re not supposed to care what it does or why the protagonists need it. It’s just rare and must-have, thereby necessitating the plot. It’s the letters of transit in Casablanca, the Ruby Slippers in The Wizard of Oz, the gold in Pocahontas etc. The fact that the film refers to it by name is them pretty much admitting they just need a flimsy reason for people to be on the planet. So yeah, this Unobtainium is expensive and unfortunately sitting right under where the Na’vi are living. So tensions with them are at an all-time high. Parker expects Grace to be finding a diplomatic solution so they can get what they need with as few hiccups as possible.
It’s now time for Jake to bond with his avatar, after a couple more witty exchanges with Grace of course. Naturally Jake goes mad with delight at being able to walk again, and runs outside to where other people are exercising their avatar bodies. We meet Grace’s avatar too. And I have to say that the rendering of the faces is truly something to behold. While advances in CGI do mean that you can literally create anything you want, creating living things is always incredibly tricky. The eyes are usually where the CGI can catch you out. Cameron made sure to photograph the actors’ eyes as much as possible to avoid the deadened look CGI usually has. They succeed perfectly here. There’s not one part where a Na’vi face looks any more unnatural than it’s supposed to. The rendering of Sigourney Weaver’s face on Grace’s avatar is a particular standout.
Since this movie has quite the high cast list, it’s now time to meet another new character. Meet Trudy, played by Michelle Rodriguez – she of the Spicy Latinas and frequent action movie deaths. I will say that this particular character doesn’t really fall into the Spicy Latina archetype. Trudy will just be acting as a pilot who tells Jake what and when to shoot. This segues into a scene where Col. Quaritch tells a couple of war stories about Pandora. He also says that he wants Jake to learn the ways of the Na’vi when he’s out with Grace – and thus make it easier for Quaritch to do his job. In exchange, Quaritch will arrange for Jake to get the surgery to walk again. This serves to establish something of a friendship between them. I wonder how well that’ll last…
Now it’s mission time and Jake gets to see Pandora for the first time. To the film’s credit, the locations we had seen beforehand weren’t too detailed. We saw some treetops and a quarry, but we the audience get to experience Pandora first hand with Jake. And it is indeed a sight to behold. If you didn’t see it in theatres then it’ll be hard to describe to you just what it was like. But with the 3D glasses on and watching it on the big screen, it was unbelievable. Unfortunately it looks a little less grand when you’re watching on DVD – unless you have a hundred inch TV or something. But the locations in Pandora are nothing short of beautiful.
This first trip out doesn’t go well for Jake, as he’s quickly attacked by several of Pandora’s bizarre creatures. He ends up separated from the rest of the group, who are forced to leave him there since night missions aren’t allowed. Luckily for Jake, he catches the eye of one of the natives. And because of a sign from Eywa, their deity, she does not kill him. This is the Na’vi princess Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana. Now I have to say that Zoe Saldana’s performance is a bit in the middle here. At first the character is very much Princess Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, only without Kida’s spunk and charm. So Neytiri’s initial role is to be exotically hot and aggressive. It’s only later when she and Jake grow closer that Saldana starts to impress with her performance.
I should also point out that it’s now night time in Pandora and the scenery is even more stunning. It’s almost what you’d expect from a big budget live action Alice In Wonderland. There’s even a bizarre quirk where literally anything in the forest lights up if Jake steps on it or bumps into it. That must get pretty distracting and/or entertaining for the more simple-minded members of the tribe.
Anyway Neytiri takes Jake to her home, where we meet her father and fiancé – who are not named Chief Powhatan and Kocoum. Going against formula just a little, her mother is present too. When the Na’vi hear that Jake is a warrior (of the Jarhead clan) they agree to assimilate him into the tribe. And since they’re feeling really generous, the stunningly beautiful princess will act as his teacher. They even have her sleep in the hammock next to his. It makes you wonder how Tsu’tey feels at the new guy sleeping next to his future wife.
When Jake goes to sleep, he wakes up in his own body. The others are quite pleased that he’s blundered his way into the camp. The executives inform him that the Na’vi home tree is sitting on top of the largest Unobtainium reserve in the area. So Parker wants Jake to find a way to get the Na’vi to up and leave or else it’s…
Throughout this sequence there’s a couple of shots where Norm looks annoyed, and he then yells at Jake for somehow getting in with no training. These little things are a bit weird, as it looks as if the film is setting things up for Norm to get jealous of Jake and eventually betray him. But oddly enough this plot point is dropped almost immediately. We get back to the plot at hand where Neytiri is showing Jake the ways of the Na’vi. The ends of their braid have something that acts as a nifty USB cable to control the various animals. Predictably Tsu’tey and the rest of the tribe don’t give Jake the time of day while he’s learning this. Back in the base, Grace announces that the team is moving out to a new location – to prevent Parker and Quaritch micromanaging things. They’re heading for a place called the Hallelujah Mountains apparently.
Thankfully the movie dispenses with at least one cliché and has Jake tell us via his logs that Grace knows about Quaritch’s involvement – thereby sparing us of at least one annoying ‘liar revealed’ sequence. Our next sequence has Neytiri show Jake how to fly a bird/dragon thingy. Every Na’vi gets one and one only that they fly forever. And yes we get a truly stunning scene of Neytiri flying. And yes it was every bit as spectacular with the 3D as you’d expect. This segues into a montage of Jake learning the language and various other Na’vi customs. We’re informed that Grace is allowed into the village too. There’s also one of my favourite little scenes in the movie: Jake has fallen asleep at his log, so Grace wheels him to his bed and tucks him in. It’s a short scene but it conveys the growing friendship between them so well. Speaking of things that are growing, things are really progressing between Jake and Neytiri as she teaches him their ways…
It’s also now time for Jake to get his own bird/dragon thingy. But not before we’ve got some even more stunning shots of Pandora’s scenery. Now I know there’s scenery porn and scenery porn, but this movie is Scenery Porn.
Jake goes first and Neytiri tells him he’ll know which one is for him because it’ll try to kill him. That makes for a nice little double entendre if you remember that Neytiri nearly killed him when they first met too. To cut a long scene short, Jake acquires his own bird/dragon thingy and gets to fly. I remember thinking at the time that this particular concept had great potential for a movie all on its own.
The movie’s focus now switches to the growing romance between Jake and Neytiri. And it’s at this point that Zoe Saldana starts to win me over. This montage between the two characters is remarkably sweet and conveys the attraction without a single line of dialogue. They fly by a location called the Tree of Souls – which Grace’s notes tell us is full of unusual activity. Outsiders are forbidden though. This then zips to a scene showing us a predator in the skies. It comes completely out of nowhere, so it’s clearly setting up a payoff for later in the movie. According to Neytiri, they call it ‘last shadow’ and her grandfather’s grandfather was able to tame one. Anyone able to do so united all the clans. Hmm will this information be useful later? But anyway Jake now says that things are backwards – he doesn’t know which place is real and which is the dream.
It’s now been three months since Jake got here and he’s got a few extra inches of hair to indicate his motivations have changed. He gets a scene with Col. Quaritch where the good colonel informs him that he can have the surgery as soon as he gets home. He wants to stop the mission now, but Jake insists to finish one last thing: a ceremony to become a man. Once that’s done, he’ll be part of the tribe and they’ll trust him.
Through the magic of cinema, we now see Jake’s ceremony – complete with warm and fuzzy shot of Grace crying tears of joy. He and Neytiri go for a walk in the jungle, where she explains that he may now choose a woman. Jake says that he’s found one, but she must also choose him. And Zoe Saldana officially wins me over for good with the following line.
“She already has.”
This intimacy is sadly interrupted by bulldozers the next morning. Jake’s attempts to stop them amount to nothing, since they’ve sent the marines out too. And unfortunately for Jake, the CCTV is able to identify him. Even more unfortunately, reaction from the Na’vi that he mated with their princess is not that pleasant. And Col. Quaritch storms the lab and pulls the plug on Grace and Jake, separating them from their avatar bodies. Jake and Grace try to reason with the executives, but they’re undermined even further by one of Jake’s logs – where he remarks that the Na’vi are unlikely to give up their home. Later on, Trudy rushes into the lab to tell everyone that Quaritch is sending the gunships out to home tree. Grace tries one last time to reason with the executives – and they’re allowed one hour to get the Na’vi to evacuate.
Predictably Jake comes clean and predictably we get our ‘liar revealed’ scene, akin to a vintage 90s sitcom. Jake and Grace are chained up as the gunships move in. To their credit the Na’vi put up a fight. But to their discredit, said fight doesn’t do much when it’s arrows against guns. Although all hell is breaking loose, Mo’at (Neytiri’s mother) frees Jake and Grace to give them a chance to get to safety. Quaritch turns up the heat by firing missiles towards home tree. But there’s at least one reluctant participant.
I’ve read a lot of criticisms of Trudy pulling out of this mission. Yes there is a chain of command in the military. And there is a reprimand for disobeying a direct order in combat. However simply being part of the chain of command doesn’t mean one becomes a mindless servant who does everything one is asked. Say the commanding officer ordered the rape and mutilation of native people. That is an illegal action and defending oneself with saying they were only following orders would not hold up in a court. In this case, Quaritch’s job is head of security. He is there solely to protect people from the natives. And likewise Trudy’s job is to fly scientists in and out of Pandora, protecting them from any hostile threats. Neither of their jobs is to participate in the mass genocide of a civilian population.
Anyway things get really nasty as Quaritch continues the attacks. Home tree falls and the chief is killed. With his dying breath, he tells Neytiri to lead everyone. I have to give credit to Zoe Saldana for this bit. This scene teeters on the edge of being cheesy but it manages to still be incredibly sad. Neytiri screams at Jake to leave and never come back. This wish is granted almost immediately as the executives pull the plug on Grace and Jake, having them and Norm imprisoned. What’s interesting to note is Parker’s reaction to the destruction of home tree. He’s shown watching the genocide with a shocked, even horrified expression on his face. Unlike Quaritch, who’s clearly relishing all this carnage, Parker looks genuinely troubled by what he’s just taken part in. Although the film never touches on it, the way Giovanni Ribisi plays it suggests Parker at least may have felt pressured into what he did – or had some more sympathetic motivations. I’d personally love if the planned sequel developed him more, since Ribisi played the role very well – and there’s definite material to explore.
Anyway Grace, Norm and Jake are holed up in prison until Trudy busts them out. Now although I can defend her choosing not to open fire on home tree, this is one part I have trouble explaining away. Surely there would be some kind of reprimand for abandoning her post? I’m going to have to assume that Quaritch was just too drunk on euphoria from the genocide to do anything about it. He’s however clearly able to notice the attempted escape and goes after them personally. The plane gets away, but Quaritch gets a good shot in on Grace. Jake connects to his avatar body and crawls through the remnants of home tree. And even the desolate landscapes look spectacular.
Remember that out-of-nowhere scene introducing Last Shadow? Well here’s the payoff: Jake is able to blindside it and fly it to the Tree of Souls where the survivors are. This sight is thankfully enough to bypass the token begging for forgiveness bit that normally follows the liar exposed. Neytiri also covers herself by admitting she reacted too quickly. Tsu’tey even gives Jake his respect. Jake begs them to help Grace – and they have a way. If they can transfer her mind from her human body to her avatar body, she will live. But sadly Grace’s injuries are too severe and it doesn’t work. After saying she’s with Eywa, she dies. This tragedy prompts Jake to give a rousing speech, which all blue-faced people are wont to do.
We’re told that the Na’vi rally the other clans all over Pandora – which are just waiting to be explored in the following movies. They then show that Col. Quaritch is making a rousing speech of his own – but it’s void of “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” so there’s that. On the protagonists’ side, Trudy sums up the situation as guns vs bows and arrows. But Jake claims they have a home field advantage – since a lot of the machinery won’t work in this area, and Trudy is used to flying these mountains. Jake’s motivational words only amount to “I guess we better stop them” – but he goes to the Tree of Souls to pray for help from Eywa. In doing so, he sheds a bit of light on what Earth is like (“they killed their mother and they’re gonna do the same here”). Neytiri tries to reassure him that Eywa does not pick and choose who to protect; she only protects the balance of life. It’s not much reassurance but at least she ain’t sugar coating it.
It’s now time for the big guns to roll out – and again Parker looks uneasy about it. Although that’s the last we see of him here, it looks as if it could be setting up a potential redemption in the next set of films. Anything that gives Giovanni Ribisi more screen time is fine by me. Anyway we now segue into this big battle scene that the entire movie has been building towards. Things start off alright for the Na’vi – who realise the advantage of shooting arrows at the pilots, thereby rendering the crafts useless. They soon realise the disadvantage of ground troops, as they are very easily squashed by the mobile infantry. Help arrives in the form of Trudy, who’s at least able to shoot a few planes out of the sky. But remember that she’s played by Michelle Rodriguez, and what usually happens to her in films…
Things don’t look so good for Neytiri either, as she’s shot out of the sky too. The battle appears to be turning in favour of the humans, as Tsu’tey also dies taking out a few soldiers. Norm is shot too but, as he’s in his avatar body, he just has to disconnect. Neytiri is now outnumbered against ground troops and prepares to go down fighting until…
The entire fauna of Pandora has declared themselves reinforcements and proceed to take out pretty much every human on the attack. With the help of the beasts, the Na’vi are able to turn the battle in their favour.
Jake takes down a jet headed for the Tree of Souls in a suitably badass bit of ingenuity. He now goes for Quaritch’s craft and is able to blow out its engines. Quaritch gets himself into a thing that looks ideal for telling an alien queen to get away from someone…
Quaritch is savvy enough to head for the control centre where Jake’s human body is. But luckily for Mr Sully, Neytiri jumps on the scene to hold him up. Quaritch kills the animal she’s riding, leaving her defenceless. Jake pops up to try and talk Quaritch down, but the good colonel prefers the good old fisticuffs approach. I must say that Jake is doing quite well considering it’s one blue alien against a ten foot armoured robot. Until Quaritch goes for the control centre and smashes the tank, separating Jake from his avatar. But Neytiri frees herself and shoots Quaritch with two arrows. He apparently dies but Stephen Lang has been booked for the next three films, so we’ll see how that goes.
Neytiri is able to get a respirator and save Jake from dying – and you realise that this is her first time seeing Jake as he really is. This scene could have been undermined by the fact that it’s CGI against live action – but it looks completely seamless. Anyway the film then wraps things up by saying that most of the humans were sent away – which seems a bit extreme. This is complete with a shot of a guilty-looking Parker. Please let him get his redemption in one of the sequels. The movie ends at the Tree of Souls where Jake successfully transfers completely to his avatar body.
So Avatar went and became the highest grossing movie of all time, and held that title until Star Wars: The Force Awakens claimed it in 2016. With all the popularity came the inevitable backlash. It’s very understandable with regards to the story. The most obvious movies with similar stories are Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Princess Mononoke and Pocahontas – the last of which Cameron outright admitted helped inspire this movie. The story is a clichéd one and even when I first saw it in theatres, I knew exactly how it would go.
But I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this movie. The last time I had actually watched it was when I typed up that other review four years ago. I was completely drawn in for the first hour. The second act admittedly slows things down a little, but the climactic battle is suitably spectacular. In the film industry, there are essentially very few original stories. For a lot of big budget studio blockbusters, it’s not what the story is; it’s how you tell it. And Cameron did tell it well here. The film’s not without its flaws, but the good points cancel them out in my opinion. I’m still very glad to have contributed to that gross, and I will be happy to see the sequels when they come along. And with Pandora established in this film, perhaps the others can go with a slightly more original story.
Here begins my little grading score on the key components of what makes a movie work:
*Story – it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but the exotic location does lessen that somewhat. C
*Characters – again there’s nothing we haven’t seen before. However some supporting characters like Grace, Mo’at, Norm, Trudy and Parker were interesting enough. C+
*Performances – despite the clichéd nature of the material, the solid performances all around save it. Weaver, Lang and Ribisi are the notable stand-outs. Everyone else is fine. A
*Writing – again the writing itself helps make the clichéd story interesting. There’s nothing too on-the-nose or eye roll worthy. B+
*Visuals – need I say anything else? A+
*Special Effects – see above. A+
*Anything Else – some stunning flying scenes and battle scenes. The editing was a bit choppy in places and some parts of the story felt a bit rushed in what was already a very long film. B
Next up is David Slade’s little-seen cat and mouse thriller Hard Candy.