“Avatar” is the sci-fi blockbuster baby of James Cameron (“Aliens”). The film was years in conception and was inspired by sci-fi novels Cameron loved as a child and the adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (especially the John Carter series) and H. Rider Haggard. Cameron has made no bones about his cribbing from many sources, including movies like “Dances With Wolves”. He got the idea for the image of the Na’vi from a dream his mother had of a twelve-foot tall blue woman. The Na’vi language was created by a linguist professor at USC. He developed over 1,000 words. Cameron wanted to make the movie years earlier, but the technology was not available to match his vision. The cinematography ended up using cutting edge stereoscopic film-making. 40% of the movie is live action and the rest is CGI. In spite of the success of “Titanic”, Cameron had a hard time selling 20th Century Fox to make the picture. It cost officially $237 million (although some sources put it in the $280-310 million range) plus a $150 million marketing budget. The risk was worth it as the movie killed at the box office and grossed over $2.7 billion. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture (losing to “The Hurt Locker”), Director, Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. It won for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects (hopefully a unanimously). It cleaned up at the Saturn Awards, of course. Among other awards, it won Best Sci-Fi Film, Director, Actor (Sam Worthington), Actress (Zoe Saldana), Supporting Actor (Stephen Lang), and Supporting Actress (Sigourney Weaver).
The movie takes place in the year 2154 on the planet Pandora. An evil corporation is mining the futuristic equivalent of oil called Unobtanium. (Before you scold Cameron for the silly name, it is a word used in the aerospace industry to refer to a substance that is too good to be true and/or is fabulously valuable.) The corporation is raping the environment, but is having trouble with the natives. The Na’vi are humanoids that live dependent on nature. They are at a lower level of development in comparison to the technologically advanced humans. This is especially true in weaponry where they are basically at the bow and arrow stage. The corporation barely tolerates a scientific project to learn the culture of the Na’vi because they see it as gathering intelligence about their enemy. The project head, Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), is an anthropologist but also sees the interaction with the Na’vi as an opening for diplomacy. On the other hand, the head of corporation security, Col. Quaritch (Lang), believes diplomacy is for pussies and is looking for every opportunity to provoke a war that will facilitate the exploitation of the environment. The scientific project involves using avatars (Na’vi/human hybrids “piloted” by human operators through a mind link). A disabled Marine named Jake Sully (Worthington) replaces his deceased twin brother in the project with the deal that the corporation will reable him if he acts as a spy in the Na’vi camp. Jake infiltrates the tribe with the unwitting aid of a feisty female named Neytiri (Saldana). She is the daughter of the chief. This is where the “Dances With Wolves” part of the plot kicks in as Jake goes native. If you have seen that movie (and “The Last Samurai”), you can guess where this is heading.
The plot of “Avatar” contains nothing you have not encountered in other movies. It is not the script that is original, it’s the mind-blowing visuals. Cliches abound, but you can overlook them by focusing on how the clichés are depicted. Cameron has a wonderful imagination that overcomes the tropes. Let your eyes pop and turn your brain off for a while. The eye-popping visuals will hopefully take your mind away from the average acting and trite dialogue. The movie will not challenge your intellect much. It is simplistic and moralistic. Cameron is a self-proclaimed “tree-hugger” and it shows. This is a message movie and one clear message is respect for the environment. Another message is respect for the indigenous people of an exploited area. Cameron has stated that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq War (he even includes a reference to “shock and awe”). Cameron insists the movie is not anti-war, but it is anti-jingoism. Actually, it is much more of a commentary on the treatment of Native Americans in the American West. In some ways, the film is a modern Western. You know the type – where the Indians are the good guys. It’s a shame that most moviegoers did not make this connection. Unless you are a Custer fan, the movie has a feel-good aspect to it. It ends with “Custer’s Last Stand”. To be realistic, the sequels should set the planet back on the path to being "civilized".
Is it a war movie? There certainly is a war between the corporation and the Na’vi, so you can say it is a colonial war movie. Think “Zulu”, or better yet, “Zulu Dawn”. The epic battle seals it. It is lengthy and exhilarating. However, it smacks a bit of the final battle in “Return of the Jedi” with the Na’vi as the Ewoks. That is not a good look. As in both those cases, the superior and much better armed lose. They have cool AMP suits (armored exoskeletons) that sport 30mm cannons. These versus bows and arrows. But, this being a sci-fi movie, the vastly inferior natives win against superior natives by luck, finding a weak spot, or having germ allies (in this case, it is the whole animal kingdom). The villains are overcome by the pluckiness of the aggrieved natives along with the crucial help of rebels.
In conclusion, “Avatar” is one of the greatest movies ever made. You can criticize Cameron for “borrowing” from many different sources, but I prefer to commend him for blending proven plot devices. He updates the “Dances With Wolves” template with astounding visuals and imagination. It is less outstanding as a war movie than as a sci-fi movie. It’s easier to suspend disbelief if you treat it as science fiction.
GRADE = B