At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Avatar “09”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Avatar “09”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi/ Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso/Runtime: 162 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that if you ever wanted to make a list of the most ambitious filmmakers of all time, there is one name that most definitely would need to be on that list for it to even possess a hint of validity and/or accuracy. That name being Mr. James Cameron. Indeed, from Terminator 2, Aliens, The Abyss, and the 1997 take on Titanic here is a man who is known for taking filmmaking to its furthest possible limits and then managing to completely and utterly obliterate those limits and in the process show us all new and phenomenal things that make the term of “movie magic” that much more of a reality. Then in the long-ago year of 2009, Cameron gave the world a little slice of cinema known as Avatar. An “original” sci-fi slice of cinema that, upon its release, not only took the world by storm, but also blew away the majority of critics by giving us the most realistic-looking sci-fi locale ever placed on the silver screen for an audience’s viewing pleasure.  You see dear reader at the time Avatar first came out, Cameron had already shown us new leaps and bounds in terms of work done behind the camera with his 1997 disaster/romance drama slice of cinema Titanic. A movie that not only brought the titular ship back from its untimely watery grave, but also sank the ship in a way that truly was capable of breaking hearts to say nothing of giving us a powerful song from Celine Dion and showing that there is more than enough room on a door floating in ice cold water for two people (but that’s another story). With this slice of cinema though, he actually managed to show that a filmmaker could construct almost 110% of a slice of cinema from a computer and still appear genuine. Suffice it to say that sure the narrative might be a bit run of the mill thus making it not surprising in the least and sure the characters are very much archetypes, but the cast all do great work with their respective parts and the aforementioned effects are genuinely out of this world thus making Avatar a slice of cinema one that might not be the masterpiece some people think it is, but is still a great film nevertheless.

The plot is as follows: Taking place in the far-off year 2154, Avatar gets underway as we see that the denizens of Earth have done what we do best in this genre of film and managed to do quite the number on our home planet to such an extent that most if not all of our natural resources are in danger of being permanently wiped out. As a result, we see that an organization known as the Resources Development Administration (or RDA for those of us who like to keep things simple) has decided to engage in mining efforts for an essential mineral on a celestial body known as Pandora. A place that is resided on by 10-foot-tall rejected members of the Blue Man Group known as the Na’vi who, surprise surprise, aren’t exactly fond of their new human neighbors nor their destructive plans for the world around them. Thus, in an attempt to both explore this world and try to negotiate with these individuals, we see that due to the atmosphere on Pandora being extremely toxic for people, a group of scientists on the surface utilize a human mind piloted Na’vi body known as an (get this) avatar to assist the RDA in their efforts. It is in this world where we see that, in the wake of his identical twin brother being horrifically murdered, that a paraplegic member of the Marines by the name of Jake Sully is sent out to Pandora in order to take his brother’s place as part of that aforementioned team of scientists. Upon his arrival, we see that Jake is taken aside by the gung-ho head of the military escort for RDA, a colonel by the name of Miles Quaritch, and told that if he helps him gather intel on the Na’vi whilst working with the scientists and their leader Dr. Grace Augustine then he will move mountains (to be fair it IS Stephen Lang we’re talking about; I mean the guy literally looks like he could move a mountain) to see to it that Jake gets put at the top of the list to get a surgery done that will help him regain the ability to walk. However, as Jake begins to genuinely form an attachment with not only the world of Pandora, but also both the tribe in the area as well as the chief’s beautiful daughter Neytiri we soon see that doubts about his mission start to form in his mind. Doubts that will see the ruthless Colonel Quaritch decide to engage in other measures that will soon see our boy wonder caught in the middle of a truly grand conflict with no more and no less than the fate of all Pandora hanging in the balance…..

Now right off the bat I guess I should just let you know that there is at the very least a pair of really big things behind the camera that really do bring this slice of cinema a tad or two. The first is the fact that the narrative in this is nowhere near as fresh as the majority of the rest of the ingredients behind the camera. I mean there is a masterpiece of cinema that was done in 1990 by iconic actor/helmer Kevin Costner called Dances With Wolves that honestly if you watched that movie and then immediately while it was still fresh in your mind watched this one you would find yourself surprised that Costner never sued this film’s helmer James Cameron because they are, more or less, the exact same movie. Therefore, if that didn’t spell it out for you dear reader, this slice of cinema is James Cameron’s sci-fi rooted take on the US Army vs the Native Americans albeit if the latter category looked like they were all offspring of the Blue Man Group that underwent a significant growth spurt. As a result, I can safely say that you should more or less be able to figure out just where in the world this slice of cinema’s narrative plans on taking you. Along with that, we see that this terrible degree of predictability also manages to inflict the cast of characters as well and manages to reduce them to playing archetypes in this that we have seen countless times before. No the actors themselves don’t do terrible, far from it actually, but when your character’s arc in this is that predictable it can take any potential enjoyment from giving this a watch and temper it just as wee bit. With that in mind though, there is no denying that the components of cinematic tech that are being utilized quite liberally in this slice of cinema virtually from beginning to end result in one of the most extravagant and just plain gorgeous slices of cinema ever put to celluloid and given to the masses that we have ever gotten. Indeed, from the spaceships hovering in the skies, the other vessels making their way into Pandora’s atmosphere, the celestial body of Pandora itself, the giant mech suits utilized by Stephen Lang and others in the final battle, and even the giant mining equipment penetrating the surface, this is one slice of cinema that more than assuredly fits the dictionary definition of the iconic phrase “spared no expense”. Indeed no plant, critter (with particular regard to a winged dragon-like creature that operate very much as the Na’vi equivalent to horses), no building, no locale, is void of being done for us courtesy of some of the most astonishing, awe-inducing, and just plain realistic work in terms of computer graphic imagery possible. Yes, I know there are a lot of grandiose slices of cinema that are a wee bit of a letdown when there isn’t much besides the phenomenal work done by the various effects departments. Rest assured though that Avatar’s work in those very same departments are leaps and bounds ahead of the vast majority of similar slices of cinema and just so magnificent in their scope and range that they actually manage to help this slice of cinema overcome to some degree the issues found with the narrative as well as with the characters respectively.

Of course, it should be said that even though the cast of players in this are all, more or less, playing archetypes each and every single one of them all manage to do really good work in their respective parts. This starts with Sam Worthington who does a great job in the lead role of Jake Sully. Indeed, I know that Worthington isn’t exactly what you might consider to be a “movie star”, but honestly that’s what makes him perfect for this role since the character of Jake is supposed to be an everyman of sorts in this situation he is thrust in and I feel that bringing a “movie star” to the role in the vein of someone like Brad Pitt would’ve made the character seem a wee bit unbelievable. Suffice it to say that it is a terrific performance and I can’t wait to see where the sequel takes him. Along with Worthington, I also really like the work done here by Zoe Saldana in the role of his Na’vi love interest Neytiri. Indeed not only does Saldana bring a wonderful ferocity and passion to the part, but she also does a great job when she has to leap into action to kick all kinds of butt. That and honestly I felt that her and Worthington have pretty darn good chemistry together that the film actually allows to develop organically rather than shoehorn it in any way. Now besides our two leads, there are also a smattering of support performances that are just as fantastic. This starts with one of my favorite, and highly underrated in my opinion, actors Stephen Lang as this film’s antagonist Colonel Miles Quaritch. Indeed not only does Lang bring the physicality necessary for this part, but he also does a terrific job at making what could have been a fairly one-dimensional villain into a more nuanced individual with enough personality and conviction to his beliefs that you can understand why Jake might initially see things his way. Suffice it to say Lang does fantastic with this part and, like Worthington, I can’t wait to see where the sequel takes Lang albeit for entirely different reasons that I shan’t spoil here. Along with Lang though, we also get terrific work here from past Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver in the role of Dr. Grace Augustine. Indeed combining a strict demeanor, a dry sense of humor, and equal degrees of heart and passion for the organisms that she is studying, Weaver does a great job at playing a role that seems like it was tailormade for her and then some. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in wonderful work from such performers as Wes Studi, Michelle Rodriguez (before the Fast and Furious franchise scooped her back up), Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, and the always welcome Giovanni Ribisi what you get is a cast that definitely makes the most of this run of the mill material and then some in the best way possible.

All in all and at the end of the day is 2009’s Avatar a say-all, end-all bonafide masterpiece? Honestly it might shock you to hear me say this dear reader, but truthfully no. At the same time though, that does NOT mean this slice of cinema isn’t a genuinely great film. Far from it actually. Sure the narrative on display is one that could best be summed up as “Dances With Wolves in Space” or heck even “Disney’s take on Pocohontas in Space” (thankfully without Mel Gibson in the John Smith role this time). On top of that, yes the characters in this are all, in their own ways, archetypes that you have seen a million times before in other cinematic properties of a similar vein to this one. As a result, don’t be surprised if you are able to figure out where all the characters will wind up by the end of the film. On the other side of the coin however, there is no denying that this slice of cinema is very much an achievement in terms of its technical merits. Indeed, not only are the visual effects nothing short of breathtaking, but each and every image in this slice of cinema is one that could be framed and hung in a house or art gallery for generations to see and admire. On top of that, yes the thematic concepts on display here may have been done before, but nevertheless they are still ones that are definitely ones that are worth pondering. Finally, it should also be noted that despite portraying archetypes rather than three dimensional characters, every single performer in this slice of cinema’s truly gifted cast all manage to make the most of their characters and give us fairy riveting performances all the same. Thus, no Avatar might not be the masterpiece that some people out there might want you to think it is, but trust me when I say that this slice of sci-fi cinema is still a genuinely great time to be had at your next family movie night with a big bowl of popcorn and on the biggest screen possible. Make of that what thou will and about that sequel…..Well I guess you’ll just have to wait a little bit longer to find out….On a scale of 1-5 I give Avatar “09” a solid 4 out of 5.