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December 25, 2009

Avatar

by Franz Patrick


Avatar (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron has always given us movies that are beyond anything we would expect whether it’s about an upcoming apocalypse (“The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), a rescue team plunging into an alien-colonized planet (“Aliens”), a secret agent finding out about his cheating wife (“True Lies”), a romantic interpretation of a tragedy (“Titanic”), or a real-life deep sea adventure (“Aliens of the Deep”). So when he releases a new movie with an extremely high budget and spent years and years shaping it, it saddens (and angers) me that people expect it to be downright disappointing. That lack of appreciation for a director who obviously loves his work and cares about his audiences just doesn’t fly with me. That group-think of hoping someone would fail is such an ugly quality and I don’t ever want to be a part of it. As I expected, “Avatar” exceeded expectations and I cannot help but rub its success on the faces of those people who judge a movie by its trailer (including the fools who claim “it sucks” without proper justification such as actually watching the film). Whatever happened to giving something the benefit of the doubt?

“Avatar” tells the story of humans–divided into researchers and the army–who go into another planet called Pandora in hopes of extracting the mineral Unobtainium to save Earth from an energy crisis. The catch is that the area where most of the element of interest is found underneath a giant tree that is inhabited by the Na’vi, the blue-colored, highly spiritual natives who do not get along with the humans despite efforts from the lead researchers (Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore) to get to know their culture and customs. After waking up from a coma and finding out about his twin brother’s demise, a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington–words cannot describe how much I love this guy) is hired by a colonel (Stephen Lang) to gain the natives’ trust (through transfering his mind into an avatar–a DNA hybrid of man and Na’vi) and double-crossing them in the end. In exchange, the colonel promises to give Jake the functionality of his legs by means of an expensive spine surgery. However, things quickly got more complicated when Jake falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and the fact that Jake finds it more liberating (or meaningful?) to be in a Na’vi than a human.

One of the many qualities I loved about this film was its ability to be about a lot of things (love, self-awareness, faith, discovery…) but never losing the wonder of meeting and interacting with an alien culture. Note that I use the word “culture” instead of “species” because we really got to know what they were about and why we ultimately root for them. Right when we plunged into the dangerous world of the Na’vi, I felt like I was experiencing something completely new. Like the lead character, everything was fascinating. I wanted to touch the strange-looking flowers and I wasn’t sure whether a certain creature was friendly or ready to attack. The theme of rebirth was consistently tackled throughout the picture in meaningful ways. Although some may see it as having a religious perspective, being not a religious person myself, I was moved by the possibilities and the interpretations made me feel more alive. I just wish that there were more metaphors and discussions regarding the science. I was interested in how they created an avatar. They did mention DNA hybridization but I’m sure that’s not the complete story. “DNA hybridization” may sound complicated to most people but once one has studied the basics (I have), it’s really a quite simple concept. Having set in the future, it could have really increased that “wow” factor by offering us unconventional explanations and poking fun of the limited technology we have now. (Since we think we’re so technologically advanced nowadays.)

I was very engaged when Weaver’s character was explaining the parallels between the neural connections in our brain and the Navi’s complex relationship with mother nature. That particular scene really supported my ethics and beliefs that a true scientist is sensitive to its subjects and not just all about the cold science. That message is really important to me because, from my experiences, every day I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are all about the brain but who are seriously lacking emotional intelligence. The director makes it apparent that this is about brains vs. brawns (scientists and Na’vis vs. the army) but I think it’s much more layered than that because there were scientists in the film that didn’t care about the natives and there were members of the army that did care (Michelle Rodriguez). Despite all the extended action sequences, I thought it had something more in its core and that’s why I couldn’t help but admire the picture. Admittedly, the story could have been much stronger but when I look back on it, the only way it could strengthen that aspect is to have another hour or so. I certainly wouldn’t cut a scene from the final version because I thought each one had something special to offer. It definitely had Pocahontas elements to it yet it’s different because it was able to offer a modern (or futuristic?) interpretation.

“Avatar” is an outstanding achievement in filmmaking, especially when it comes to its visual effects. I would not be surprised at all if it won every single technical awards in the Oscars or perhaps a Best Picture nomination. With a budget of over $300 million (from what I read from multiple sources), I thought the budget really translated onto film. Not only did the CGI images looked sharp by themselves but it was also amazing to see the CGI mesh so well with live action and the live actors. My experience was also magnified because I saw the movie in 3D. (I suggest you watch it in 3D as well.) With a behemoth of a running time that is 160 minutes (personally, I wish it ran longer), it may seem intimidating at first. But once all the action and imagination starts, you will not want to take a bathroom break. I can only hope others will have a chance to be absorbed in this world that Cameron has created for us. Most of all, I wish that people would stop hating on huge projects such as this one and show more appreciation and humility toward people who work so hard to offer us something new. It’s alright to express distaste after actually giving the final product a chance. But it’s important to still have some respect because what we project to the world is ultimately a reflection of us.

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