Harry reviews AVATAR at last!
I love AVATAR – and it isn’t because of the 3D, the big blue people, the alien landscape with floating mountains and it’s version of flying critters. It isn’t because of the mech armor, the flying battleships and the wasp-like helicopters. It is because of the story.
Now, a story isn’t just about characters and their actions… stories are often about the times in which those actions took place. Stories are not evaluated by just the dialogue between characters, but why these conversations are taking place.
The basic structure of the story and the conceit comes from the early 20th Century where you had authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs postulating stories set on Mars & Venus and their moons. But in PRINCESS OF MARS, John Carter magically appears upon the surface of an amazing Mars that has clean air for him to breathe. Once upon the planet, he is found to have miraculous pre-SUPERMAN super-strength, speed & agility. He becomes one with the warrior race of Tharks, falls in love with a Helium princess and does battle against… well a very bad guy! Many writers talk about where the pieces of AVATAR comes from, but as a life long mega-geek of science fiction and fantasy – I love that with AVATAR, Cameron has envisioned a future for us that is something rather remarkable.
There is no magical warp drive, light speed… this future of mankind is based on heightened existing technology and known science and equipment. To get to Pandora, you’re asleep for years. Much like what we see in films like ALIEN & ALIENS. There’s a grounding to it all, and very much like those films – we’re in an alternate arc of that possible future for mankind.
We have exhausted supplies here on Earth, and we’re heading out into the universe gathering those materials. The film begins with a ship made for that journey. Giant cryo-sleep compartments with what looks like several hundred sleep areas. The ship is covered with Solar arrays, giant containers of water, fuel, etc – which are on all sides of this massive, very NASA-y looking ship – that is practical low tech high tech for the future. It isn’t the sort of ship you can easily put together. If they made a model kit of it, there’d be a shitload of tiny pieces that would drive you nuts putting together – but in the end, would look amazing.
Out of this sleep we’re introduced to Jake Sully. Jake isn’t your typical hero, but in reality… he is. He’s a soldier that became a paraplegic due to combat. A story we hear a lot about back here on Earth of the early 21st Century. He had a twin brother, it seems these twins had nearly complete opposite ambitions in life. Jake was all about diving into combat, while his brother expanded his mind with science, and the dream of exploring a strange new world.
In this future, the most amazing science fiction conceit has come about. An AVATAR program. Where hybrid alien bodies are grown and created with the express purpose of working and interacting with the native denizens of the planet moon of Pandora. Now – think about this for a second. We’re growing alien/human hybrids that can be controlled via the consciousness of a human. I love this concept. Are these hybrids’ fertile? Or are they the horse/donkey MULE hybrid that can’t reproduce. Sorry, getting ahead of myself a bit.
This universe is incredibly detailed. From the science tech you see everywhere, to the ships on the planet surface… well, it is amazing.
However, what grabs me is this Jake Sully character. He isn’t crazy charismatic, he’s a grunt. Not only that, he’s a warrior that lost his legs in some war that was going on in Venezuela. Wonder if we were going after the oil or the cattle. Hmm maybe it was for the Llamas.
The future of mankind isn’t too terribly distant from our own times, it is just… we’ve hit a new age. Like back around the late 15th through 16th century Earth – when the European nations began sending ships of warriors, scientists and religious advocates to the new world. In this world, we’ve seemingly left the story of Jesus back on Earth – as I see no signs of religion being foisted upon the natives of this planet-moon.
We can only imagine back on Earth, what footage from Pandora has done to excite the minds of us humans. Now – the mission to Pandora isn’t an AMERICAN endeavor, it’s a Corporate one. Even now, we’re seeing corporate interests driving the use of outer space and as profit is proven, we’ll see Corporations doing more. All they need is to see is their carrot. Cameron uses the term, UNOBTANIUM, to describe this ‘carrot’. UNOBTANIUM is a word, used since the 50s by scientist to describe the undiscovered needed material that would solve all the problems that not having that material would bring us. Yes, the name is an eye-roller – but it could be far worse, as scientists have also come up with UNATTAINIUM, WISHALLOY and my fave… HANDWAVIUM!!! The film doesn’t concern itself with telling us what this magical mineral found on Pandora does, but that isn’t the story at hand.
No, the story at hand concerns Jake Sully. Jake hates his wheelchair. He doesn’t like being treated like a cripple, doesn’t like having to depend on others and most of all – he’s out to prove that he may still be worth something, even if he is half a man. When his brother dies and he’s able to take his brother’s place in the Avatar program, fly off to the wonder moon of Pandora… well, he signs up. It is better than sitting in a room.
With all the wondrous technology – why is Jake in a wheelchair? Well, because it seems in the future – we still have economics, we apparently never fixed healthcare properly to where people that need care can get it done without ridiculous financial repercussions. Jake can’t afford to fix his legs, and the fucking government that got the legs fucked didn’t take care of it. So he has to go the corporate route to get adequate Healthcare. Man, can I relate. Instead, he’s had to see the legs wither. The very best effects work on the film are these emaciated dead legs of Jake. Nobody questions them, yet this visual detail tells us everything about Jake.
To watch your own body begin to wither because you’re not capable of financially rescuing your own limbs from atrophy and uselessness, it is a bitter pill to swallow.
By the time Jake awakes within the conscious body of a Hum’vi, a word I’ve created to describe the Human / Na’vi hybrids. A Hum’vi is slightly different from the native Na’vi. They have 5 fingers and 5 toes, the Na’vi don’t. The Na’vi feet kind of remind me of Chimp feet, which probably has to do with the Na’vi being a primarily arboreal critter on Pandora. Anyway, by the time Jake comes to – and he sees toes he can wiggle.
Look, I went over this when I saw this footage at Comic Con. I got excited by just what happened in the lab. However, when Jake busts out of the facility into the poisoned air of Pandora and can breathe without fear of imminent death… and then when he just takes off running.
People in wheelchairs dream of running. Trust me on that. I know I’m a fat geek in a wheelchair, but we all dream of running. This is Jake’s first step towards being intoxicated with his Avatar. Hell, I doubt I’d ever want to wake up if I could have a Na’vi body that was as nimble, fit and amazing as this.
Quickly, we find Jake having a chat with Stephen Lang’s amazing Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is an ex-Marine, come Corporate hooligan, used by the Corporation to do… well, what mercenaries hired by corporations in places like Iraq do. They do whatever the corporation deems necessary. He’s the type of man that can’t wait to shoot the blue monkeys out of the trees. Lang is a god in this role. The 3 clawed scar raked across his face makes him seem like a African Safari god from the 19th century. The sort of dude that would chest bump Tarzan back in the day.
Of all the films that I can think of – the one this actually reminds me of is TARZAN ESCAPES – the unobtanium at the time was Elephant tusks, the sacred place was the Elephant Graveyard, natives were angered and up in arms. Comparisons are legion when it comes to this film – because there’s elements from a myriad of materials. Anyone that just dismisses this as DANCES WITH WOLVES in space… really has a lazy mind. If you’re stuck on Indians – think Malick’s NEW WORLD or Richard Harris in A MAN CALLED HORSE – and a little of Dustin Hoffman in LITTLE BIG MAN. This film has elements from dozens of films. What I love, is that I’ve never seen it put together quite so.
Sure, Neo plugged in and fought in a fantastical version of our world. But when he woke up, he was still Neo, just with a better haircut and sharper clothes. Well, here – Jake’s Hum’vi is pretty amazing. This ‘avatar’ mirrors the personality that we gather from Jake’s rather quiet and unexpressive character. That isn’t a swipe at Sam Worthington – to me, he is 100% wholly believable in every second of the character. That he is MORE expressive in Hum’vi form is merely because he has more to react to.
Jake’s human existence, over the course of the film, you can see the effort it takes to pull himself out of the AVATAR machine. Every time he comes out of these ‘dream like’ realities – he’s back in a sterile environment, having to open up his chair, carefully swing his dead sickly legs over the side and back into his chair. The real world sucks for Jake.
That isn’t to say it sucks for everyone in a wheelchair, it is just… for a man like Jake – a true Man of Action – life in a chair can feel like two feet in the grave. As a 4-wheeler myself… I alternate between hating and loving my wheelchair. However, I feel thankful that I live in a world that is as accomadating as possible for my condition – even if the dentist I went to today had painfully inadequate facilities to take care of me and my shattered wisdom tooth.
Now – once in Hum’vi form – Jake not only has a complete body, but a whole new world to take in. His mission is to discover all there is to know about the Na’vi, because the corporation has EXTREME interest in the deposit of unobtanium, beneath their enormous tree. This is a tree that dwarfs the largest buildings we have yet created on Earth. In a world of enormous vegetation, this Tree is king. This has been the generational home for the Na’vi going back untold years.
Left to our imaginations would be Glyphs in the interior documenting their history… but wait. They don’t need that. You see, the Na’vi have a completely alien method to recording history – it doesn’t involve killing trees and grinding it into pulp. It isn’t Blu-ray. It isn’t anything that they or we can see. This planet has an astonishing ecosystem unlike anything we have seen. This planet makes sense in a way that ours doesn’t.
Our planet, ecology and animal life are each retarded by comparison. Here – every Na’vi is born with a biological version of firewire – which allows them to plug and play with their fellow wildlife – but also their trees. And they can store consciousness, histories with a seemingly endless storage capacity. Of course to the corporation and the Jarheads working for the corporation – this just sounds like liberal bullshit. Where’s the proof? Unless you experience it – and at this stage of colonization – we have not yet found a way to digitally tap into this planetary consciousness – but as I was saying, unless you experience it has to sound like the hokum of a thousand other cultures that pointed at territory and screamed out “It Is Sacred!!!” And that has stopped the aggressive culture… when?
Yeah. Same thing here. Economic desire is a hard God to beat.
But what continued to draw me in was Jake’s personal journey. The point where he stops thinking like a human. Or as the Na’vi put it, “cured of his insanity.” Because to the Na’vi – the human culture is insane. Why would you tear into the ground for rocks. Why would you simply not co-exist with this wonderful splendor? Well, you’re dealing with people operating over satellite geo-thermal readings, instead of any aesthetic surface quality.
This film and that world require you to look deeper than that. You can’t just dismiss the visuals, the visuals are KEY to telling the story. Watching the subtleties of Jake Sully’s Hum’vi and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri… I fall in love. You can see the moments where Neytiri ceases to look at Sully as a chore and is instead looking upon him with respect. You can see the moments where Sully is ashamed of himself and his actions. Me, I love watching Wes Studi’s Eytukan – you read the disgust on his face, and the pride he has in Sully becoming one of the ‘people’ – and then the racist rage that comes with this Dreamwalker mating with Daddy’s little girl.
I love watching Joel Moore’s Norm Spellman… you can tell that here is a geek that studied to be the star, only to watch Jake excel in ways he just wasn’t trained for. I love that what sets Jake apart from the various scientists and soft folks that are a part of the AVATAR program, that it’s a warrior from our world, that breaches the divide. In a way, it reminds me of THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON – and the way the Custer story was handled in that 40’s world. Errol Flynn was both friend and enemy to the “indigenous peoples” that he was set to fight.
There’s a lot of Custer here. A lot of LITTLE BIG MAN. When it comes time for Cameron’s version of LITTLE BIG HORN – hold on to your shit, because you’ll want to be constipated. Otherwise… it’ll be 3D in your pants!
This is a film about the early days of colonization. This is not the end, just the next step in the story of Pandora. My faith in our planet being cool enough that we’ll actually see further adventures concerning Pandora is pretty low.
I love the heroic legend this movie creates – about a hero borne a man, but who will die as something else entirely – and possibly live throughout eternity as a legend that saved their planet… or awoke a beast light years away.
For me, the story is great, the setting is amazing, the characters are living a story I’d dream to be a part of – and the filmmaking is, as always, James Cameron at his best. The action, heart and soul are all there. For me, the only moment of lameness is the love scene. I know, I’m a perv, but really? Jim, that’s the best you could do? Let’s see some crazy alien tree sex. OH. Families. Well, they watch Animal Planet MATE WEEK.
AVATAR is unlike anything I’ve seen before, it is a story of heroes, human greed, cultural discovery and a dream of human accomplishment that I have wished my whole life that we as a society would pursue. There are stories like this waiting for us out there. Let’s get started!