Directed by: James Cameron
Premise: Set in the distant future, a military force works with a corporation to displace the indigenous population of a jungle planet in order to harvest the natural resources located under the native’s home. A paraplegic Marine uses new technology that allows him to inhabit the body of a native creature and learn about their culture. In the process he becomes attached to the alien people and must decide where to place his loyalty.
What Works: Avatar is a spectacular sci-fi action adventure. The visuals of the film are extraordinary especially in the realization of the planet, creating a total living, breathing environment. Most exceptional is the creation of the indigenous people. The level of detail, especially in their faces, is impressive; what the technicians on this film have accomplished is to allow the actors expressions and emotions to be captured in the digital apparatus that this film is created through, and not sacrifice performance in the production of the film. Avatar is primarily about action and excitement and the film is full of dynamic chases through the jungle and the final conflict between the native Na’vi people and the invading military force has some great moments. Avatar also smartly incorporates humor into the story, which does a lot to humanize its characters, and Giovanni Ribisi gets a few great lines in a small supporting role as the amoral company man.
What Doesn’t: Although Avatar looks great, it is also very cliché. The film echoes entrenched science fiction themes that were done more interestingly in two films released earlier this year: District 9 and Battle for Terra. Avatar suffers from characters who are flat and largely uninteresting; they exist more as functions of the story than as people acting under their own agency. The story of Avatar is very superficial and does not seriously engage its political implications. The indigenous culture of the film is quite clearly a stand-in for indigenous Americans, but the film’s Na’vi culture is itself a sort of avatar of portrayals of natives in movies. As a metaphor, Avatar does not represent the natives as people with their own struggles and flaws, and instead idealizes them in the stereotype of the noble savage. In the film’s attempt to condemn imperialist behavior it also condenses the conflict to a very simple good versus evil binary that is not very interesting.
Bottom Line: Avatar is a good film but it is also ultimately an average film. Fans of James Cameron or science fiction adventures should definitely check it out but despite all of the effort put into creating the fantastical world, not enough effort was put into filling that world with characters and stories that are interesting and engaging.
Episode: #270 (December 27, 2009)