I had simply assumed months ago that Avatar would suck. It's lame plot combined with what were at the time equally lame special effects meant that this would be the end of director James Cameron's career and that studio heads would laugh him out of their offices when he got desperate and proposed a Terminator/Titanic crossover. Working under the "Oh man oh man is this ever gonna suck" assumption, I figured a few weeks ago that I would call my review of this movie "Ava-Tard." Clever, right? I bet you wish you'd thought of it. Unfortunately, I was too clever because, as I mentioned last week, Avatar actually defied the Cinematic Laws of Nature and turned out to be good and not just good by the "At least the special effects and fight scenes look cool" standard of good to which one normally holds big budget action pictures. No, it's actually good, but no way was I going to give up that title. Moving on.
Sure, Cameron mined material from Dances With Wolves and Poul Anderson's famous 1957 story Call Me Joe as well as a few other sources but god damn, if you're going to do a ripoff, this is the way to do it. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a Marine in the year 2154 who lost the use of his legs in combat. Even though the technology of that time makes it possible to allow him to walk again, the grateful nation that sent him into war won't pay for it so he accepts a job that was originally supposed to go to his deceased twin brother. He will go to Pandora, a habitable moon that circles a distant gas giant where a corporation is trying to make Pandora a better place by stripping it of a valuable energy source called Unobtainium (thus adding The Core writer John Rogers to the list of people who "contributed" to this movie).
In addition to an atmosphere humans can't breathe and several large, powerful animals, God has seen fit to place our Unobtainium under the feet of the Na'vi, a primitive race of ten foot blue skinned people who seem to think that just because they live there means that they shouldn't have to leave and let us strip mine their sacred lands. Jake Sully's job is to have his consciousness transferred into a genetically engineered Na'vi body called an Avatar. He won't be a covert operative as the real Na'vi spot the Avatars right off the bat. Rather, he's supposed to live with them and gain their trust. He's aided in this task by a Na'vi girl played by Zoe Saldana called Neytiri who looks like she just stepped off the cover of this month's Maxim-Pandora edition.
Cameron sets up the story the same way he set up Titanic. Nearly two hours are spent watching Jake learn about these people and their amazing world so that we'll give a damn who wins the climactic battle between the humans and the Na'vi. Unlike other graphics-rich films like Transformers or G.I. Joe, we meet interesting characters like Sigourney Weaver's Grace Augustine, a scientist both fearless and caring and Stephen Lang's sadistic Colonel Quartich and forget after a while that these people and their rich landscape were made inside a computer. Cameron lives up to science fiction's greatest challenges. He creates a convincing alien landscape and evokes a true sense of wonder. True, the aliens themselves are basically tall humans with blue skin but there is an alien consciousness in the movie that thinks and behaves differently from humans, thus meeting another of science fiction's great challenges. I guess that's what I like about it. Avatar, like other 2009 films The Box, Knowing and Moon, is serious science fiction. Things that at first seem to be mysticism have realistic explanations. I kept waiting for moments of stupidity you come to expect from big budget films, moments that never came.
Avatar is a remarkable achievement and is good enough to make me forgive James Cameron for denying me the fun of ripping apart what should have been a symbol of excessive, ego-driven film making.