Avatar

Avatar (2009). 162 minutes, Twentieth Century Fox. Written and Directed by James Cameron.

When I first went to college in 1980, I started out in Tech. I was going to major in Computer Science. But after a year learning hard-core assembly language programming, building functioning computer processor gates, and studying electrical engineering technique, I realized that what I really wanted to do was direct.

I wanted to direct movies, that is. And so at the beginning of my sophomore year, I switched to the School of Speech, and switched my major to Radio-TV-Film. I did this because although I am fascinated by computers and technology, I was fascinated because of the creative possibilities – not by the computer science in and of itself. And I wanted to learn the creative side a lot more than I wanted to learn the technology side. Luckily for me, that combination of skills sets turned out to be very savvy in the long run.

I switched to being a Film major because of one, overarching reason: I. Love. Movies.

And when I say “movies”, I mean “Hollywood narrative storytelling kind of movies”. I grew to appreciate and even seek out all kinds of film as my education expanded my viewpoint, but I never have lost my undying love for a pure, unabashed good ‘ol rip-roaring, entertaining Movie.

I like a good story with fleshed-out characters, in a film that is well-acted and has great visuals. And lately, that’s been getting harder and harder to find, especially if you also like science fiction / fantasy type films. It seems that every film in that genre (with a few notable exceptions like District 9) are just video games or toy advertisements rendered for the big screen.

Thank god for James Cameron.

Yesterday morning, I sat in a nearly-sold-out theater wearing a pair of surprisingly comfortable 3D glasses, and was transported away into another world. I got a feeling of rising joy as the story unfolded. It wasn’t a very original story, but it was told very well. And everything on screen was beautiful. And the acting was excellent.

For two hours and forty minutes, I wasn’t on Earth at all. I was gripping my armrests, muttering under my breath for the good guys to win, the bad guys to fail, and drinking it all in. I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire time, a smile of wonderment and pleasure.

I love a good movie. And Avatar is a very, very good movie.

I’m not going to say much about the way the movie was made, or how long it took, or how much it supposedly cost, or any of that stuff. If you’re interested, there are a bazillion articles about that aspect of the movie all over the net, including a ton of “making of” videos already out there. I’m just going to talk about the movie itself and the experience of watching it.

Avatar is the first real 3D movie I’ve seen in a theater (well, I saw the Michael Jackson Captain Eo short film at Disneyland several times, but I did say “first real 3D movie”). So right away, the experience of putting on the 3D glasses was different. And the film began, a point of view shot of flying over a canopy of trees…

It’s the year 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-marine, now a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair due to injuries suffered while in the service. As he explains in a voiceover while he’s being awakened from a 6-year cryogenic sleep aboard a spaceship, broken spines can certainly be repaired – but it’s very expensive, and his VA benefits don’t cover that level of treatment.

So Jake took advantage of a very unique opportunity. See, Jake has – or had – an identical twin brother. And his twin brother was a scientist, working on a project concerning the planet Pandora. Pandora is a planet full of life, but unfortunately the atmosphere is poisonous to humans. So the scientists came up with the concept of “avatars” – hybrid human/alien bodies that humans link into and control.

Each of these avatar bodies is a unique DNA construct, and has to be custom-grown for each individual whose brain the body will be linked to. Jake’s brother was one of those individuals – until he died in an accident. So Jake is recruited to take his brother’s place, seeing as how they already have an avatar that matches his DNA, all ready to go.

Linking into the avatar allows Jake to inhabit a fully functioning body again. A body that is, in fact, stronger and tougher than his pre-injury body ever was. A body that looks exactly like one of the intelligent inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’Vi.

The scene where Jake first links up with his avatar is wonderful. Jake crawls into a coffin-like contraption, glowing optical fibers light up, and in the next second he wakes up in his new body. He’s 10 feet tall, blue, with feline eyes and ears that swivel around like a cat’s. He’s told to take it easy, but Jake can’t wait, and runs outside in his new body, just to enjoy the feeling of standing, running, rubbing his toes into the dirt.

The movie proper really begins at this point. Jake’s assignment, since he has no scientific training, is to act as an armed bodyguard for scientists (who are all also in avatar form) working on the planet. They all work for some company – a company who is trying to get the natives to move away from their current home – which, inconveniently for the company sits right on top of a huge deposit of a very rare mineral that the company wants to mine at almost any cost.

The scientists haven’t been having much diplomatic success, however. The Na’Vi immediately recognize the avatars as being “meat puppets”, or “dreamwalkers”. They are not fooled, and for the most part shun the avatars as being poor duplicates of “real people”. So, the company has paid a huge sum to host a entire Marine brigade, whose job it will be to forceably remove the Na’Vi.

His first day on the job, Jake is separated from the rest (in a fantastic sequenece involving some very nasty alien predatory animals), and has to spend the night out in the forest. During the night, he’s just about to meet his end at the hands of a large pack of dog-like creatures, when his life is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), one of the natives.

To Neytiri, Jake is a baby, a moron who doesn’t even know how to live in the jungle. Nevertheless, she agrees to help him learn the ways of life here in the Pandoran jungle, and introduces him to her village, including her mother Moat (CCH Pounder) and father Eytukan (Wes Studi). As soon as he falls asleep that evening, he wakes back up in his real body. His teammates, especially Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) are thrilled to see him safe and sound.

Later that day, the scarred and very-obviously-evil Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, chewing the scenery for all it’s worth) makes a special deal with Jake: Gain the trust of the Na’Vi, and then get them to move. He’s got three months. If he fails to get them to move, then the Marines will swoop in and destroy their home out from under them. In return, the Colonel says, he’ll make sure that the company immediately pays to have Jake’s broken spine repaired. Not surprisingly, Jake agrees.

And so every day, he spends most of his time in the avatar body. Then a few mournful hours back in his own broken body, keeping a sad video log. But, as the months go by, Jakes feels less and less like a human, and more and more like a Na’Vi…

And that’s where I’ll stop the recap. I will say that if you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, you know a lot of the rest of the story already. Of course Jake falls in love with Neytiri, and of course he switches his allegiance completely to the Na’Vi. But, so do a number of the scientists… and that makes the company and the military very, very unhappy.

Avatar is two hours and forty minutes long, and I didn’t notice the time. I never even looked at my watch. My eyes stayed glued on screen the entire time. Not since Jurassic Park have I felt so convinced by what is, after all, a very large special effect.

Pandora and the Na’Vi are, simply put, breathtaking. The actors playing the parts inhabit their alien “avatars” completely, using a performance capture technique that is light-years better than anything I’ve ever seen before. The planet itself glows with life. Everything fits together perfectly.

The storyline helps quite a bit. To be sure, it’s not the most unique storyline, and it is very much lifted from other movies you’ve seen before. Paradoxically, however, this is part of what makes the film work so well. The environment of Pandora is so unique, so vibrant, so… wonderfully alien, that having a familiar and easy-to-grasp love story at its heart ties it all together.

The middle section of the film, where JakeSully (all one word, as the Na’Vi call him) learns about how to live on Pandora, tames a flying reptile as his steed, and falls in love with Neytiri, is astonishing. This section of the movie lasts almost an hour, but it never, ever drags.

The 3D works very well. For the first five or ten minutes, I “noticed” it. And then it just faded away into the experience. My eyes didn’t hurt, I didn’t get any kind of a headache, I just fell into Pandora and into the story that James Cameron was telling.

Avatar is, simply put, a great experience. This is Filmmaking at its finest. This is why I love the medium. This is the kind of movie that everyone involved in film dreams of making, and loves watching. This is one of those quintessential movies that is going to define things for a long time to come.

Titanic was a good film (yeah, I still feel that way, so sue me), but Avatar is a great film. If it’s playing in 3D anywhere near where you are, go see it. You will not be bored, and you will not regret seeing it. I am planning on seeing it again later this week myself.

And when you come out of the theater at the end, I bet you will never say the phrase “I see you” in the same way again.

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