This Friday James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar (featuring Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana), finally hits screens world wide, finishing off a big year for sci-fi movies (including the aforementioned return of Trek). In an extensive review, Jeff Bond takes a look at the much-discussed Avatar and the new state of sci-fi movies.
Avatar and a Great Year for Sci-Fi on Film
By Jeff Bond
NOTE: This review contains spoilers
As James Cameron’s Avatar finally sees the light of day in theaters across the country we seem to be just beginning to see the backlash to the backlash to the backlash for one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years. The backlash began in July at the San Diego Comic Con, where 15 minutes of footage from the film thrilled some but befuddled and annoyed others, with the naysayers instantly spreading their grumbling all over the internet. Was this what Cameron was crowing about, a $300 million videogame? A remake of Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest? 10 foot Smurfs in the jungle? Jar Jar Binks in blue?
The dangers and limitations of the film were right there on the screen: a plot that even Cameron admitted was Dances With Wolves on another planet; a race of noble primitives designed to play off the collected guilt of industrialized nations; the usual "white guy saves a primitive minority race" story approach, and an obsessively designed world that depended on ones and zeros to make it seem "real." But even in this fraction of footage made available, Cameron’s obvious strengths were also on view: his ability to maintain focus and drama in the most outlandish situations, and that same obsession with detail that in this case has the possibility of bringing the most fully realized alien environment ever put on film to fruition.
Alas, the drumbeat for lynching Cameron was the loudest one from July to now, with various bloggers and websites (chiefly Gawker and to a lesser extent its offspring io9) practically guaranteeing that "Avatar will suck."
Then followed the backlash to the backlash—early reviews that were almost 100% raves screaming that Cameron had pulled it off. Yesterday gawker.com actually, bravely published a public apology admitting that Avatar was terrific. And now…the backlash to the backlash to the backlash—some tough reviews taking the film to task for its storytelling limitations. Just as with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Avatar will clearly be divisive—an overrated white elephant for those for whom a movie is story, originality and, tellingly, the right kind of politics…and a revelation to anyone who can be pulled through a movie by the power of pure filmmaking.
I fall into the latter camp. The 15-minute tease of Avatar last July seemed very satisfyingly immersive to me. We got to see all the film’s chief creatures, but they actually mattered less than the enveloping views of Pandora’s luminescent jungles and the relatable blue faces of the alien Na’vi and "Avatar" Jake Sully. That’s the stuff that left me hungry for more.
At two hours and forty minutes in length, Avatar delivers a full meal. Cameron blends—sometimes uneasily—the tropes of both widescreen epics and his characteristic brand of industrial strength, crowd pleasing action. The first half of the film is quite simply a hypnotic, magical fever dream of stuff you always wanted to see in a big sci fi film, from the brief but satisfying glimpses of a complicated and realistic interstellar spacecraft to the dizzying shuttle dive into the atmosphere of Pandora and the first broad pans across its infinite layers of forest and mountains. Cameron introduces his characters (Sam Worthington as the wheelchair-bound Sully, Sigourney Weaver as tough talking exobiologist Grace Augustine, Stephen Lang as the human base’s hard-as-nails military overseer, Giovanni Ribisi as the symbol of venal capitalism, and Michelle Rodriguez as a helicopter pilot with a heart of gold) efficiently and brilliantly decodes his "Avatar" high concept in a scene in which Sully wakes up inside his 10-foot tall blue Avatar body, staggers out of a medical holding room and burst out onto the grounds of the compound to see other Avatars training in the open air of Pandora.
Cameron quickly gets Sully and the others into the jungle and just as quickly separates him from his team, getting him lost so that he—and we—experience the awe-inspiring jungle flora and fauna alone…until he runs into Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, a Pocahontas-like, fierce warrior princess that is our first view of the Na’vi. Cameron inundates us with CG imagery from the opening moments of Avatar, but his director’s eye and attention to detail is so keen we barely notice. What’s truly amazing is the way the Avatar Jake and Neytiri characters work—despite design work that really does call to mind Jar Jar, the Dark Crystal Gelflings and all sorts of other unwholesome associations, these beings fully register as characters, working almost better in close-up than long shots. Saldana, great but underused in Star Trek, does awesome work here. She’s an impressive warrior but an involving, soulful presence too, and her give and take with Worthington is terrific.
It’s true that Cameron’s plot ingredients are familiar, and there’s definitely some predictability to the story—once Cameron introduces a story element it’s fairly easy (although not in all cases) to see what the payoff will be. Saldana is so good she overcomes any cultural baggage her character might carry, but other players like C.C.H. Pounder, as the Na’vi tribal sorceress, and Wes Studi as their patriarchal leader, are less fortunate. At times the Na’vi are irritatingly on-the-nose stand-ins for Native Americans, even whooping like something out of a John Ford movie during tribal gatherings. They ride horses (that look like six-legged sea horses) and dragons, and Sully’s journey of discovery as he becomes one of the tribe involves standard rites of passage: learning to use a spear and a bow and arrow, riding a horse, riding a dragon…oh yes, riding a dragon. See, while the basics are familiar, it’s the details that matter. Saying Avatar is just Dances With Wolves in space is like saying Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress in space—it’s true, but ultimately that’s just a small slice of each film’s impact. Following Jake Sully’s Avatar around Pandora, you quickly feel like you’re there, experiencing the sights and sounds of this strange new world and even feeling the strange agility and power of this giant blue body with Sully. The script might read "Jake jumps on a dragon and flies it" but that doesn’t get across the impact of watching Jake and his Na’vi brothers run along miles of highway-like vines hanging thousands of feet in the air and clamber up a chain of floating hillocks to reach the dragons’ aerie, or the thrill of watching Sully’s lithe, savage form rocketing through the air on the back of his "banshee."
I did tune out, oddly, midway through Avatar when Cameron begins the human war on the Na’vi with a titanic-sized massacre pitting squadrons of helicopter gunships against the native populace. It might be that Cameron’s immersive vision and the power of 3D imagery on this level can only grip you by the heart valves for so long. Cameron stages two mammoth battles in the second half of the film, and by a few minutes into the climactic conflagration I did find my pulse getting back into the game. The logistics of action scenes and the plotting of the micro and macro moments of these sequences are in Cameron’s blood. He can even get away with the imagination-beggaring coincidence of bringing his three chief players together for a face to face final showdown in the middle of a battle involving thousands of warriors on each side that seems to cover miles of space both vertically and horizontally. I walked out on Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai over just this sort of manipulation, but Cameron is such a superior filmmaker that he makes it work.
Like the basic plot elements, the science fiction ideas in Avatar aren’t blazingly original. The idea of the Avatars themselves apparently owe a lot to a Poul Anderson science fiction novel, while the Gaia-ish concepts of the Na’vi’s connections to their world, and the multilayered jungle planet conception reminded me a lot of Alan Dean Foster’s seventies sci fi novel Midworld. Cameron dots most of his I’s and crosses his T’s as far as the technical details of his world go, dealing realistically and consistently with the idea of an atmosphere humans can’t breathe and the way the Avatar technology operates. But he leaves some ideas unexplored and unexplained. The human forces are mining something called "unobtanium," a tongue in cheek term also used in The Core. There’s no explanation of what unobtanium does or why humans need it. One of the film’s most spectacular images is the gigantic, floating mountains (seemingly inspired by an old Yes album cover) that hover over the Na’vi’s jungle stronghold, but aside from some vague, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it doubletalk about a "vortex" of some kind, there’s no explanation for this phenomenon. It’s not related to the planet’s gravity because rocks and people fall off the floating hills just fine. It would have been nice if Cameron had tied the ideas together—maybe unobtanium is some exotic, gravity-defying ore. That sounds like a good power supply to me. Thankfully, Cameron does take pains to ground the Na’vi’s mysticism in science, and in so doing he comes up with a fairly surprising and emotionally satisfying ending to his film.
You can’t discount Avatar as an important science fiction film. The occasional groaner line of dialogue or plot turn does not, ultimately, put a dent in this film’s impact unless you’re predisposed to reject the movie’s "tree hugger" philosophy (something Cameron cannily makes Jake reference early in the film). The film is a landmark in terms of putting an original, science fiction reality on film in utterly convincing, and often breathtaking terms—and that makes it the perfect punctuation for a year that has really been pretty great for the genre. Every sci fi film released this year has produced its share of arguments, but one thing you can’t argue is that the genre has made a huge comeback from a period in which films set in outer space and dealing seriously with science fiction ideas have been all but absent from movie screens, replaced by endless supplies of costumed superheroes. Zach Snyder’s Watchmen seemed to put the nail in that coffin in more ways than one. It’s a faithful and in many ways superbly done adaptation of the graphic novel, although with its celebrated "squid" finale removed (much to the dismay of Hitler!), it loses a big chunk of its conceptual sci fi mojo. But the realization of Dr. Manhattan alone gives the film at least a deserved cult status. Similarly, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (probably familiar to readers of this site) isn’t one of the strongest entries of the series in terms of its sci fi concepts and execution, particularly when someone can view a basketball-sized Vulcan in the sky from some mysterious planet called Delta Vega. The tired madman-on-the-quest-for-revenge plot was in fact a sideshow to the film’s far more successful reboots of the Star Trek characters and worlds themselves—although the idea of permanently reconfiguring the Trek universe by way of interference in the timeline is a daring—if to some, infuriating—idea.
This summer also saw the much less ballyhooed but in a way equally satisfying Moon with Sam Rockwell—an extremely well made (for a pittance) outer space drama with very intentional echoes of Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and even Peter Hyams’ Outland, from director Duncan Jones. Equally intelligent and derivative—but far more controversial—was Neil Blomkamp’s terrific District 9. It spins off of things like Alien Nation and Cronenberg’s The Fly while creating a harrowingly up front parable about apartheid, with some of the most convincing, and strangely compelling alien creatures ever put on film and one of the most unusual tragic heroes since Brazil’s Sam Lowry. District 9’s documentary filming style drove some viewers crazy (or made them come down with motion sickness) but the technique serves the film beautifully and the crazy brutality of the movie’s climactic action is white-knuckle gripping. Even the Ben Foster dogPandorum, for the most part a complete train wreck that barely survived a tiny one weekend release, is an ambitious outer space thriller about the fate of the crew of a multi-generation colonization starship, a classic SF concept if ever I’ve seen one. And if you wanted to check your brain at the door, there was 2012—a brazen remake of When Worlds Collide that is probably no dopier than the classic George Pal production was. It made a good pile of money as did Star Trek, District 9 and even Moon on its own independent movie terms. And Avatar is pretty much guaranteed to earn enough worldwide to justify its $300 million budget, and maybe even justify the sequels Cameron has talked about. Hopefully studios will take the right lessons from these films, ensuring that strong characters and daring science fiction concepts become an integral part of future sci fi productions. 2009 ought to be remembered as a banner year for the genre and will hopefully be the launch point for a true revival of science fiction in film.
Star Trek, Moon, District 9, & Avatar – part of a great year for sci-fi movies