Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in Avatar (2009)



(director/writer: James Cameron; cinematographer: Mauro Fiore; editors: James Cameron/John Refoua/Stephen Rivkin; music: James Horner; cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Col. Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm), C C H Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan, Chief), Laz Alonso (Tsu’Tey), Joel David Moore (Norm Spellman), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jon Landau/James Cameron; 20th Century Fox; 2009)

“Enough toys to please all the kiddies in the audience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Filmmaker extraordinaire, of special effect films, James Cameron (“The Abyss”/”Aliens”/”The Terminator”), after a 12-year hiatus since his 1997 ‘Titanic,’ outdoes himself in CGI effects and creates a goofy SF film packed with stunning vistas, psychedelic wonders and enough toys to please all the kiddies in the audience. The central set piece is the lush distant planet called Pandora, that’s inhabited by bizarre nine-foot blue-skinned alien hunters using bow and arrows– the peace-loving Na’vi, living a primitive tribal Native American lifestyle in harmony with nature, following their deity Eywa and communicating with nature as tree-huggers. But their simple way of life is threatened when the ‘ugly’ humans (Americans!), called by them The Sky People (seemingly clones of the Bush administration), have a multinational corporation establish a mining colony on the planet without an invitation to search for a precious resource called “Unobtainium.” The Na’vi are suspicious of the humans, viewed as soul-less and warlike foreigners, who are trying to make a deal with them to get the precious resources without a war and have infiltrated their planet with a powerful military presence, corporate money people, corporation scientists and, to gather info on the natives, have placed in their population “avatars.” The avatars are genetically engineered bodies, a blend of humans and Na’vi, that look like Na’vi but are controlled remotely by plugged-in users.

When his scientist twin brother is killed a week before shipping out to Pandora, paraplegic wheelchair-bound ex-US Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Australian actor) is chosen to go in his place even though he has no training as a researcher. In 2154, after a year asleep aboard a spaceship, the fearless, curious, gruff and moody warrior, lands on Pandora and wakes up in zero gravity. Jake then meets his avatar–one that has been generated from his brother’s DNA and the natives’ and is designed to blend in among the native Na’vi, as the human stays in a pod while his avatar roams the jungle.

In charge of the avatar program is grumpy but nurturing genius scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the program’s dedicated dove inventor who has been hired by the corporation and whose science is being borrowed by the greedy corporate types, headed by their numero uno asshole Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). The invasion of Pandora is part of the military-industrial relationship, where both the corporate and military world benefit by playing footsies with each other. The heavily armed belligerent military, itching to do their military thing and take out the natives to help the corporate world and their tough-guy image, has hawkish top-dog military man, the mercenary head of security, the film’s cartoonish heavy, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), make a deal with Jake. By keeping the colonel abreast of what Jake’s avatar has learned about the natives, info the colonel hopes to use as valuable intel if there’s combat, in return the colonel promises Jake his legs restored through the courtesy of the corporation. The science maven, in turn, regularly pumps Jake for info on the natives and seems genuinely interested in their eco-friendly culture and how they’re spiritually connected to Every Living Thing. So we learn, that there’s conflict, even among the invaders, between the hawks and doves.

The center of life for the natives is an untouchable holy tree where tribal memories and the wisdom of their ancestors can be tapped into. Unfortunately this is the spot the humans want to strip mine and when diplomacy breaks down and no deal can be reached to avert conflict, war begins. Jake comes to respect the Na’vi culture and questions the mission, and goes completely native by accepting their way of life, marrying the chief’s feisty princess daughter (Zoë Saldana), who saved his life in the jungle and has been assigned by her dad to tutor the wannabe Na’vi so the tribe can learn about The Sky People. Their tabu relationship leads to a moving love story, with Jake siding with the natives when the conflict begins.

Its edge is in the cutting-edge special effects, showing off the recent advances in 3-D and how far-out cinema technology has advanced even from recent break-though films like The Matrix (1999). It was filmed for a record $300 million and made good on its ‘shock and awe’ claims to spectacle. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, while the strained story and witless campy dialogue are not. It’s a hamfisted message film with a cliché-ridden screenplay that seems to glibly sum up all the anti-war messages from modern-day films, especially the fiasco in Vietnam and the ongoing oil war mess in Iraq. The overlong tedious second act, at least, also adds on a worthy environmental message about saving the plant life of a planet. Ultimately the film drags its feet without fresh ideas or a solid script–still the essentials needed for good film-making–until the big conflict in the third act restores the film’s cinema power and vouchsafes the ability of Cameron’s storytelling. It gets high grades for its signature visuals, ability to wow the viewer with awe and for being able through its Hollywood magic to entertain the masses despite the script’s leaden moments.