Every so often, a movie comes along that changes the rules of filmmaking in one area or another. After watching masterpieces like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and this summer’s “Star Trek”, I didn’t really think computer graphics could get much more sophisticated.
How wrong I was.
“Avatar,” the astonishing creation of high-profile director James Cameron (“Titanic”), is a staggering feat of cinematic brilliance that truly succeeds in blurring the boundaries between live-action and CGI. It’s already receiving critical acclaim from both viewers and the media, some even hailing it as the “Jazz Singer” of 3D films.
The plot follows Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine who enlists in the “Avatar” program on the planet Pandora. The multinational corporation he’s working for has come to Pandora in search of the precious mineral unobtanium…but the planet’s natives (12-foot-tall blue-skinned feline aliens known as Na’vi) are proving to be a thorn in its side. The myopically evil Colonel Miles Quaritch promptly assigns Jake to join the Avatar program and broker a peace agreement (primarily involving the relocation of the Na’vi).
Jake’s consciousness is then transferred into his Avatar body – a biological “shell” grown from a mixture of human and Na’vi DNA. In such a form, he can explore Pandora’s toxic atmosphere without the use of cumbersome breathing equipment…and he can also try to infiltrate the Na’vi society and win their trust.
Predictably, he gets separated from his companions and narrowly escapes getting killed by the native wildlife. Enter the heroine Neytiri – a lithe Na’vi warrior princess who calls Jake “stupid, ignorant, like a child.” Of course she falls in love with him.
The first half of the movie mostly concerns Jake’s assimilation into the Na’vi society…but things really take off in the second half, once the humans start getting impatient with Jake’s lack of diplomatic progress. As expected, the big bad industrialists show up with missiles and gunships and start wreaking havoc on the innocent Na’vi. Jake, meanwhile, has become disillusioned with his Colonel’s murderous tactics and now sympathizes with the Na’vi. I won’t spoil the ending (because there’s a great twist), but plot-wise, it’s pretty much a sci-fi remake of “Dances With Wolves.”
First: the good…
Everyone reading this has probably already heard about the spectactular visuals…but no description can give this movie justice. Cameron has created a breathtakingly gorgeous science fiction universe that makes “Star Wars” look like a home movie. Everything – plants, animals, vehicles, you name it – exudes high production values…a testament to the $300 million budget (Just to put that figure in perspective, the cost of the ENTIRE “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was $258 million). The 3D effects are by no means gimmicky – rather, they perfectly complement the action without inducing splitting headaches. Watch it in 3D if you have the chance – you will NOT be disappointed.
Some of the most stunning scenes include a nighttime journey through a bioluminescent forest, a treacherous climb to the nests of dragonlike flying creatures, and a helicopter journey through a labyrinth of floating mountains. And then, of course, there’s the final battle.
I haven’t seen anything quite so epic since the Pelennor Fields fight sequence in “Lord of the Rings.” It’s an astounding, drawn-out tour de force that more than justifies the cost of admission. It’s long enough to completely satisfy even the most destruction-happy viewer, while short enough to ensure that it never gets dull.
Sounds great, right?
The worldview implications of this movie can be summed up as follows: this is the most New-Agey movie I have EVER seen. The Na’vi embrace a form of neopagan pantheism that involves worshiping the All-Mother, “Eywa” (an astute reviewer in the Houston Chronicle pointed out that this is an inversion of “Yahweh”). “Eywa” is basically a sci-fi name for Mother Earth, the “network of energy” that flows through all living things.
It’s like the Force…but then “Avatar” takes it a step further. Trees on Pandora serve as neurons in a great, interconnected consciousness (the whole planet is one huge “brain”) which means that destroying the trees is tantamount to an act of murder. One special tree, the “Tree of Souls,” allows the Na’vi to communicate with their deceased ancestors.
Just in case his viewers didn’t pick up on the ultra-environmentalist overtones, Cameron tosses in a few political jabs aimed at the Bush administration. The evil Colonel Quaritch talks about “preemptive strikes,” “fighting terror with terror” and “shock and awe” before he exterminates scores of innocent Na’vi. Visual imagery employed (helicopter gunships descending into a primitive jungle) evokes images of the Vietnam War. For their part, the Na’vi note the advantage of “fighting on their own ground” and lament that the humans fail to see that “the true treasure does not lie beneath the earth, but is all around them.”
(Cameron said in a recent interview that with “Avatar” he was hoping to return to the philosophical roots of the earliest science fiction. Ironically, the earliest science fiction was heavily atheistic/evolutionary, and dealt with humans trying to find meaning and purpose in a godless universe. The spiritual dimension present in modern sci-fi was introduced in “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”)
From a Christian perspective, there’s some interesting food for thought. The Na’vi essentially exist in an Eden-like paradise – they live in complete harmony with nature and one another, even apologizing to the animals they kill for meat. Unlike the Sioux Indians in “Dances With Wolves” the Na’vi are morally perfect beings – they do nothing that could be considered “sin” during the course of the movie. There are no examples of primitive sacrifice or savagery, but rather scene after scene of perfect love and unity. In contrast, most of the humans (there are a few notable exceptions) are greedy, foul-mouthed mercenaries who take pleasure in killing
Cameron indicated in another interview that the Na’vi represent “abstractions” or his idea of how human beings should live in concert with their surroundings. Unfortunately, he’s starting from the presupposition that human beings are basically good, and are corrupted by their evil profit-mongering society. If everyone would get in touch with Mother Earth and embrace the lifestyle of the Na’vi, the film argues, we would have a perfectly tranquil society.
But sadly, we aren’t Na’vi…we aren’t perfect. We are fallen beings with an inclination toward selfishness, as the film so aptly demonstrates. Left to our own devices, we are just as barbarous as any of the predators roaming Pandora’s jungles. It would be wonderful if Cameron’s vision was true – if by tapping into our inner spirit-force, we could all achieve unity and unselfishness – but in our world, evil is real. The film leaves these questions of human nature unanswered, leaving behind only a vague chain of New Age environmentalist platitudes.
Other objectionable content: there’s quite a bit of profanity, and the final battle is pretty intense. The Na’vi are pretty scantily clad, but after all, they’re inhuman blue aliens. Overall, the PG-13 rating is never called into question.
The big question: all things considered, should you support it?
Quite honestly, no one goes to see a movie like this because of its philosophical underpinnings. This movie is about the visuals…and quite honestly, a harmony-with-nature worldview lends itself nicely to gorgeous computer effects. Having said that, however, “Avatar” is undeniably a film with a message – an earth-worshiping, evil-humans-are-destroying-the-planet message. It’s not handled well enough to be truly moving – the characters are pretty static, and the villain is unrealistically barbaric – but the ideas are still there.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a grain of truth in it. It’s absolutely important to preserve the planet. It’s even more important to respect innocent, native life – and to be honest, the U.S. doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to that. But in my view, the planet is not a god…or, as “Avatar” would have it, a goddess. I don’t worship creation – I worship its Creator.
“Avatar” is probably going to shatter a slew of records, just like “Titanic.” And in my mind, it’s worth watching just for the effects. In the end, the decision whether or not to see it is up to you. Just go into it with your eyes open.
A mixture of brilliant filmmaking and environmentalist propaganda.
Normalized Score: 5.8