WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Wanting the land of the Na’vi people to mine a precious metal located under their sacred home, a well-armed corporation tries to influence them to move by sending Na’vi shaped beings controlled by humans to negotiate. However, the more paralysed marine Jake Scully gets to know the tribe – and his female mentor Neytiri in particular – the less he feels inclined to share what he learns with aggressive Colonel Quaritch. As the threat of all-out invasion looms, Jake must decide where his allegiance truly lies.
Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a 22nd Century marine on his way to the moon Pandora. He’s in a wheelchair and can’t afford the operation to walk again, which would ordinarily make him a useless grunt; but he’s useful to RDA, the corporation looking to mine the incredibly precious material unobtainium* (the same joke was used in The Core) on Pandora, because he can replace his recently-deceased twin in the corporation’s scheme to negotiate with the tall, blue Na’vi (who live above the unobtainium) by sending in Na’vi-human replicants controlled by human brainwaves. Though he has no training, Jake immediately takes to the programme as he is fully mobile as a Na’vi, and despite the exasperated warnings of chief scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) gets into trouble with the local wildlife almost as soon as they land on Pandora in avatar form. Lost and attacked by dog-like creatures, Jake is rescued by a female Na’vi called Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and introduced to her tribe, who are suspicious but fascinated by the ‘dream-walker’ warrior. Over the months, Jake undergoes initiation ceremonies and learns the ways of the Na’vi, whose culture is inextricably linked to the life-force of Pandora’s plants and animals, represented by the deity Eywa and the mystical Tree of Souls. But on the outside, he is still communicating with RDA’s warmongering Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who, with the backing of heartless boss Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is preparing to launch a devastating attack on the Na’vi dwelling called the Hometree. Jake and Neytiri fall in love but when time runs out, he is powerless to stop the corporation destroying the Hometree. It seems impossible that a seemingly primitive and peace-loving race can withstand the military might of the invading humans from rolling on to the Tree of Souls: but Jake has learnt much in his short time as a Na’vi, and he has sympathisers including ace pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez).
No written description can adequately describe the visualisation of Pandora that is undoubtedly Avatar’s chief claim to greatness. The Na’vi’s home is a stunning combination of forest, cliffs, and floating mountains filled with exotic beasts, massive trainable birds and small, energy-filled creatures. At night, the surface becomes luminescent and light spills wonderfully from alien plants or the Tree of Souls that holds the memories of Na’vi past. The Na’vi too are terrific creations, moving powerfully and interacting with the dignity of a proud but essentially peaceful race. On the other side, the fearsome mechanical prowess of the RDA is also brilliantly rendered, especially the ‘mecha’ units such as the one Quaritch assumes late on in the piece, during the apocalyptic battle for the soul of Pandora. And though I have reservations about 3D – the illusion is always cut off somewhat by the edges of the screen, unless you have a big enough IMAX one – it works beautifully here, notwithstanding a few gimmicky examples of people throwing stuff into the screen.
But: having gone to all the trouble of creating a wonderful, three-dimensional world, Cameron opts to tell a story which is essentially a mega-souped-up version of Dances with Wolves (the Dances with Smurfs joke is harsh but fair), peopled with entirely one-dimensional characters. You know exactly what a bastard Selfridge is going to be, you can guess Dr Augustine is not going to make it, you absolutely know Trudy’s going to come to the rescue at least once, and Quaritch is merely Robert Duvall’s Kilgore from Apocalypse Now, complete with coffee, whilst he and his space marine colleagues speak the language of unimaginative computer games (the new recruits to Pandora are naturally ‘ladies’ and ‘fresh meat’). Worse, Sam Worthington’s Jake is not particularly engaging despite his sympathy-grabbing disability, and I was never fully convinced that he inhabited rather than merely gave voice to his Na’vi body: it didn’t help that he had to talk about the Na’vi’s (and I quote) ‘tree-hugging crap’ or say things like ‘you’ve gotta be kidding’ when given a seemingly impossible initiation task. And this is a serious problem: for all the amazing CGI and 3D work, I doubted that Na’vi Jake or Grace were solid and real beings whose bodies remained inert on Pandora whenever they were active as humans (wouldn’t it mean they never actually slept?). The Na’vi elements felt Disney-ish, like a really polished version of Pocahontas or Aladdin, largely on the back of the bland dialogue and Worthington’s bland performance (which occasionally slipped in some Australian vowels, too).
The Na’vi themselves are perfectly fine, though their rituals and lifestyles are merely a combination of Native American and Holistic New Age ideologies, and their patriarchs, fighters and lovers merely conform to film (especially cartoon) stereotypes of being hostile to an outsider, taking him in, falling in love with him, losing him, then accepting him as their leader. It may sound as though I’m expecting Avatar’s story to be every inch as amazing as its visuals, but I don’t mean to. I just feel that the visuals are presented as an end in themselves, designed specifically to distract from the story’s weaknesses and blatant borrowings. It is, after all, essentially the tale of a redneck who hangs out with another culture and comes round to their point of view after getting it on with one of their women, albeit with amazing explosions, and the political/ecological allegories are so blatant that I won’t insult you by spelling them out here. You can’t pretend you’ve made a paradigm-shifting masterpiece simply by making up creatures and giving them an extra pair of limbs or outlandish names; if it were that easy, The Lady in the Water would have received much better reviews.
A film like Avatar probably has to be seen to be believed, and if your last experience of the cinema was, say, Ghostbusters twenty years ago it’s well worth catching up on what can be done with the medium of film these days. But the tale a film tells should never take a back seat to its technical achievements, and in this respect Avatar is nice enough but far too simplistically written and performed. All the technical prowess in the world couldn’t stop me from shifting in my seat and wondering when something unexpected was going to happen, and I’m sorry to say that it never did.
NOTES: There is only the barest of mentions of why the unobtainium is so precious (and no explanation whatsoever of what it does); it may well be accurate, but it’s a cheap script that says ‘bad corporation will kill to get stuff because it’s valuable’, and an even cheaper one which – as Avatar does – destroys in the name of the faceless ‘shareholders’.