R098 Avatar

(2009, Fantasy/SciFi/Political-ish, color)


Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett

Just what this movie needed. Another way to demonstrate the sweeping grandeur of blah-dee-blah, blah, blah...

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:

Evil corporate humans harass benevolent, planet-worshiping alien aborigines.


Alternative title: Sex Monkeys of Pleasure Planet.An avatar is an alien body grown in a tank, driven by psychic remote control. They’re partially grown from the DNA of their operators—exclusively scientists who study avatars and avatar-related phenomena. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) isn’t a scientist, but his twin brother was. Twin Brother was shot to death in a mugging gone bad just a few weeks before he was scheduled to ship out to the alien world of Pandora. Avatars can only be driven by the operators with whom they share DNA so, unwilling to let an obscenely expensive avatar go to waste, the corporate executives in charge of the operation hire Jake instead.

Jake’s a paraplegic ex-marine with no avatar training, which annoys the scientist in charge (Dr. Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver) to no end. She complains to the executive in charge of the planet (Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi) who puts her off with dismissive exposition. To wit: Pandora is the only known sole source of unobtainium. The local natives, a race of primitive blue monkey-cat people called the Na’vi, populate the area above the richest deposits of this lazily named and most valuable of resources. The job of Dr. Augustine and her staff is to pilot their Na’vi-shaped avatars into the native settlements and convince them to leave.

If you can’t plot the rest of Avatar’s trajectory from here, then you don’t watch very many movies.

A broad caricature--sorry, character--I didn't mention.Turns out Jake’s a natural avatar driver, though his lack of experience with the local fauna makes him a liability on his first trip into the lush jungles of Pandora. He’s chased by predators, gets lost in the jungle and meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a mostly unclad semi-human-shaped blue jungle girl who will make any furries in the audience feel a bit funny, you know, down there. She takes him back to the village. Her father the chief finds out he’s a warrior, not a scientist, and accepts him for basic Na’vi training.

Now Jake’s caught in three directions. The Na’vi want to “cure his insanity”, i.e., make him like them. The scientists want him to help them preserve and learn more about the Na’vi culture. The executives, of course, want him to either convince the natives to move or give their pet mercenaries the intelligence necessary to wipe them out. Of course Neytiri is in charge of making sure Jake gets Na’vi training, and of course they fall in love during the stupefyingly lengthy Na’vi training montage. Jake becomes a member of the tribe, and soon after, Neytiri’s mate.

Soon after that, the executive/mercenaries get impatient and use Jake’s previously obtained intelligence to destroy the Home Tree, the local Na’vi tribe’s home. Upset that his people would do such a thing, the Na’vi cast him out again. Desperate to return, Jake and his scientist cohorts escape to a remote broadcasting location. Jake reenacts an old Na’vi legend (the one about riding a giant red alien turkey) to regain the Na’vi’s trust and rally the tribes against the humans. This, of course, leads to a big explody fight in which Na’vi and humans die by the hundreds. Eventually, the living planet Eywa (sort of a collective planetary consciousness housed in the jungle root system) summons all the vicious predators of Pandora to smash the human armies. The Na’vi eject the human survivors from the planet. Jake uses Eywa to permanently upload his mind into his avatar.


Pocahontazoid.The plot ain’t nothin’ to write home about, but then, it’s nothing to scoff at either. It’s a simple, sturdy, workmanlike story that neither pleases nor offends the intellect. If this was a different movie, I’d complain that it doesn’t especially engage the intellect either, but this is Avatar, and engaging the intellect is clearly not the story’s job. What little plot we get is simply framework, a narrow network of events whose only purpose is to provide us with an excuse to visit the visual effects.

How to describe the visual effects? As of this writing, Avatar has already grossed more than any other movie in the history of movies, so if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably already seen them. They are good. Do me a favor, and re-read the previous sentence while pretending that instead of saying “good,” I churned out a five-page treatise that made liberal use of words like “awesome,” “incredible,” “inspiring” and “groundbreaking” without any trace of sarcasm or irony. Now I’m going to write “they are good” again, and this time I’d like you to pretend I wrote a similar treatise, only longer. They are good.

If I had to complain—and since I’m me, I do—I’d have to say the visual effects are a little too good. No, that’s not right. It’s not that they’re too good, it’s that they’re too good for too long. It’s like the time I took my family to Yellowstone Park, one of the most interesting, beautiful places on earth. At the beginning, we waited forty minutes in the sun amid a jostling crowd to see Old Faithful do its thing. Then we went on to the hot springs, the mud pots, the waterfall, the buffalo herds, the other hot springs, the other mud pots, the other waterfall, the other buffalo herds, the other other hot springs, the other other waterfall, etc., and so on. By the end of the day we were spending no more than five minutes at each masterwork of nature and cursing the buffalo herds whenever they blocked the road. There is such a thing as awesomeness exhaustion, which brings us back to the unnatural, fascinating and eventually tedious beauty of Avatar.

There’s enough to make fun of, though, which is why we’re discussing it here. A few of my favorites from the commentary track: Right off the bat, Mike identifies this as, “The film that broke amazing new ground for director’s egos.” Later, when Dr. Augustine calls Jake “numbnuts”, Bill says, “Thoughtful nickname for a guy who’s paralyzed from the waist down.” As blue alien warriors-in-training leap from floating rock to floating rock, Kevin advises, “Jump down the third green pipe and warp us to the end of the movie.” Smurf and Blue Man Group jokes are well-represented, mostly by Kevin, but the riffers restrict themselves to no more than one every twenty minutes or so. Good filler bits include Kevin’s ongoing Amway salesman routine, used to liven up the lengthy predator chase early on in the film, and the way a riffer usually cries “SCIENCE!” whenever one of his companions starts to question the odd biology on display. It’s a good commentary that picks up the slack reasonably well whenever the movie pauses to let you drink in the general majesty of it all. Now, if someone (*cough*jamescameron*cough*) had the restraint to not pause the movie quite so often...