Director : James Cameron
Screenplay : James Cameron
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel Moore (Norm Spellman (as Joel David Moore), CCH Pounder (Moat), Wes Studi (Eytukan), Laz Alonso (Tsu'tey), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel), Matt Gerald (Corporal Lyle Wainfleet), Sean Anthony Moran (Private Fike), Jason Whyte (Cryo Vault Med Tech), Scott Lawrence (Venture Star Crew Chief)
After a Kubrickian 12-year absence from feature filmmaking following Titanic’s 11 Oscars and billion-dollar haul at box office, James Cameron re-emerged with Avatar, his long-awaited return to science fiction, and it is as grand in scope, ambitious in production, and technologically advanced as we would expect. It is a Cameron film through and through, with its marriage of sophisticated, high-end special effects and a deep vein of humanism that is generally best expressed through unapologetic romanticism. The film also marks a return to several of the ideological issues that provided a political framework for Cameron’s previous sci-fi juggernauts, including the triangular struggle for power between capitalism, the military, and science, the conflict between the organic and the technological, and the seemingly limitless capacity for human egotism and violence.
The story is set almost entirely on a distant moon called Pandorum, which is covered with expansive jungles and mountains and holds a rich substance known as Unobtainium beneath its soil. It is also home to a native alien race known as the Na’vi--nine-foot-tall, blue-skinned humanoids with lithe, muscular bodies, cat-like faces and eyes, and long braids of hair that hide tendrils that can communicate directly with much of the planet’s wildlife, including six-legged horse-like creatures and giant flying reptiles. The overriding characteristic of the Na’vi, who are intelligent and resourceful, but not technologically sophisticated, is their connection to the natural world around them. Unfortunately, the Na’vi’s way of life is threatened by the encroachment of the human race, which has apparently sapped the Earth of virtually all its resources (the film takes place in 2154, less than 150 years from the present) and is now hellbent on doing the same to Pandorum. Naturally, the Na’vi stand in their way, especially because the ancestral home base of one of their tribes sits directly on top of the largest source of Unobtainium.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Force Recon Marine who is paralyzed from the waist down, but is recruited to Pandorum after his twin brother is killed. His brother was part of a military-run scientific operation in which scientists explore Pandorum and the Na’vi culture using avatars--bodies grown from a genetic combination of human and Na’vi DNA that can be remotely controlled by a human operator. Thus, the avatars allow the scientists to understand a dangerous and hostile world without putting themselves in any actual physical danger, and for Jake it means the opportunity to walk and run again, albeit only by controlling an external body with his mind.
The deeper implication (and complication) is that Jake begins to think of his avatar body as his “real” body, while his crippled human body becomes like a dream. In effect, he begins to lose track of his own identity, especially as it becomes deeply fractured via multiple and contradictory alliances: one to Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the chief scientist who wants to understand Pandorum and the Na’vi, not exploit them; one to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a hawkish Marine who is itching to destroy the natives; and one to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the beautiful female Na’vi warrior who becomes his guide and teacher. The more time Jake spends controlling his avatar body and learning the ways of the Na’vi, the more he grows to love the strange alien world and its native inhabitants, which inevitably puts him at odds with both his military affiliation and the mining corporation for which they work (embodied by Giovanni Ribisi’s ruthless suit). Jake comes to understand that the Na’vi are not the “savages” the humans would like to paint them as, but rather a complex and loving society with a deep, rich history and spiritual connection to nature that humanity abandoned long ago.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because Avatar could be well described as a sci-fi riff on Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), in which Costner’s post-Civil War soldier is branded a traitor after he adopts the culture of the Native Americans who live near his remote outpost. Like that film, Avatar is essentially about the tragedy of one culture ransacking another simply because they have the power to do so--the sin of assuming that might makes right. At its heart, Avatar is an allegory for the way in which industrialized societies have systematically obliterated native populations for no reason other than to claim their land and resources. Much of the rhetoric that is used throughout the film, including references to “terrorism” and a “shock and awe” campaign, are deliberate stabs at the Bush-era military endeavors in the Middle East, which were sold as moral duties even as many suspected they were really about controlling oil. This gives the film a certain present political currency (although with perhaps an unfortunate level of obviousness), but it is better read as an invocation of past injustices and the dire need for their avoidance in the future.
Of course, when people talk about Avatar, most will not be debating its ideological currents, but rather its impressive visuals, which were rendered theatrically in an immersive new 3-D format and constitute the most ambitious and sustained use of photorealistic CGI to create entire new worlds in a live-action film since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (not surprising, WETA Workshop was heavily involved in the film’s massive effects). The world of Pandorum is a constant visual marvel, with its vast jungles of towering trees and frequently dangerous inhabitants (including a pack of creepy predators that look like skinned dogs), its floating mountains, and its glowing plant life. If Cameron’s primary goal was to draw us into an alien world that is utterly convincing, he has succeeded magnificently. The film’s other primary technological challenge was the Na’vi, who are also entirely computer-generated using motion-capture technology that renders with impressive detail the performers’ movements both large and small. Like the best of previous CGI characters in live-action films (particularly The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum), the Na’vi are, at their best, seamlessly convincing in both their physical tactility and the realism of their movements. As advanced as the technology is, though, there are times when they seem a bit cartoonish, but on the whole Cameron’s film represents an impressive step forward in this realm, bringing us closer yet to the idea of indistinguishable “synthespians.”
As interesting as the technology is, Avatar ultimately hinges, like most of Cameron’s films, on a love story, in this case the growing romance between Jake and Neytiri. The romance is a risky ploy, not only because it relies on our acceptance of a conventional opposites-attract dynamic with nine-foot, blue-skinned humanoids, but also because we are always aware that the physical component is inherently compromised by the fact that Jake’s Na’vi body is an avatar. Yet, it works, and moreso than that, it challenges us to rethink our conceptions of true love and attraction as fundamentally spiritual, rather than physical. When the film draws to its explosive climax, which pits the Na’vi tribes with their spears and arrows against humankind’s destructive firepower of machine guns and rockets, it feels like there is something genuinely at stake, rather than just a never-ending series of explosions. Even if Avatar doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights of Bud’s literal and symbolic descent into the unknown in The Abyss (1989) or Jack’s sacrifice for Rose in Titanic (1997), it packs more of an emotional wallop beneath its sci-fi surface than most Hollywood romances, proving once again that the best action spectacle is grounded in a firm foundation of genuine feeling.
|Avatar Extended Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition (3-Disc Set)|
|This three-disc set includes three versions of Avatar: The original theatrical edition (which includes a family audio track with objectionable language removed), the Special Edition re-release (which also includes the family audio track option), and the Collector’s Extended Cut with 16 additional minutes, including an alternate opening on Earth.|
|Subtitles||English, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||November 16, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Since Avatar has already been released on Blu-Ray in a single-disc, no-frills edition, we had a pretty good idea of what the film would look and sound like on this new three-disc “Special Collector’s Edition,” which boasts three different versions of the film. The image on both the theatrical version and the extended re-release is simply spectacular, with amazing detail, depth, and intensity of color. I have heard some complaints about some of the additional footage that has been added to create the “Collector’s Extended Edition” just for this release, and I can see that the blacks in the opening scenes on Earth are not quite as deep and rich as in the rest of the footage, but it’s a small quibble. Simply put, the films look amazing. They also sound amazing, with Cameron having gone back and retooled the lossless DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround mix for optimal home theater viewing. The soundtrack is duly immersive, and the climactic battle scenes are appropriately engulfing with sound and fury. The low end gets a particularly strong workout, as do the surround channels, which are filled with gunfire, swooping wings, and engine noise.|
|Cameron has never been one to shy away from pulling back the curtain on his various magic tricks, although like Titanic, he did not give fans any immediate gratification by initially releasing Avatar on a bare-bones disc. However, unlike Titanic, it has taken him less than a year, rather than seven years, to release a full-out special edition, and fans of Avatar should be more than pleased with the wealth of supplements that have been included. Because Cameron’s films are such technological marvels, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes work to document, and this three-disc set covers virtually all of it, including some stuff you may not have even thought to ask for (such as the lyrics to all the film’s songs). The first disc is supplement-free, except for an option to jump straight to the new material in the different cuts of the film. The second and third discs, however, are nothing but supplementary material. You would do well to start on disc number two with Capturing Avatar, a feature-length making-of documentary that covers the film’s entire production history and reception. It features extensive behind-the-scenes footage of both motion-capture work and live action filming, as well as interviews with all the people involved both in front of and behind the the film’s specially designed 3-D cameras. In addition, there is a “Production Materials” section that includes nearly two-dozen short video clips of various aspects of the film’s production. The cutting room floor has been culled for a lot of material, as well, including 28 deleted scenes and another 45 minutes of never-before-seen footage in various stages of production (many of these scenes were cut before they were finished). The third disc includes 17 short featurettes covering performance capture, screen tests, on-set footage, and visual effects and an interactive scene deconstruction where you can watch 17 sequences from the film at three levels of production (one option is a picture-in-picture where you can watch the performance capture footage alongside the completed shots). Pandorapedia is a massive, comprehensive text-based guide to Pandora and all things Avatar, providing definitive proof of just how obsessive Cameron is in terms of world-building in his films. “The Art of Avatar” galleries contain more than 600 still images of every character, creature, and object that appears in the film. You can also read Cameron’s original story treatment and the shooting screenplay, and the disc includes all of the theatrical and teaser trailers.|
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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