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The Westfield Voice

Film Review: Avatar (2009)

Official “Avatar” movie poster.

What is there to say about the financially successful yet critically scrutinized Avatar? A lot, apparently, as writer and director James Cameron is planning on making three more movies about it.

It’s curious that the mind behind revolutionary pictures like Terminator and Aliens has decided to spend his last few films in the world of Pandora. Cameron claims that he wants to keep telling a bigger story, but when such a story is considered the anchor that holds the entire ship down, both fans and critics seem to question Cameron’s insistence on making a new franchise.

The film takes place in the distant future as a retired and paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes part in a colonization of a moon called Pandora to mine for the precious material Unobtanium. The plan is simple: take the form of an alien body known as a Na’vi, assimilate in their culture, and try to convince them to leave so that that the humans can begin the mining.

However, this all changes when Jake meets and falls in love with the abrasive Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Na’vi warrior and daughter of the chieftain of the tribe. This begins Jake’s inner conflict as he must decide whether to sidewith the indigenous culture of the Na’vi or his own kind.

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) training Jake (Sam Worthington) to hunt. (Azaelius)

If the description makes the movie sound too familiar to other movies you have seen, that’s because it is. Criticisms like “Pocahontas in space” or “Dances with Wolves in space” is palpable as James Cameron wears such inspirations on his sleeves. The only separation between such comparisons is that the film is in the direction of a sci-fi epic, and the film’s story and character arcs can be open and closed before you reach the first hour mark.

The film indulges you with boring villains and uninteresting characters. The main character, Jake Sully, is the biggest victim of this as there’s nothing emotional to grab onto with his arc. Besides his monotonous amazement with Pandora, we learn next to nothing about him as a character. Why would we care about him being torn between two different worlds when there’s clearly no interest in telling us more about his human side in the film?

Sadly, this can be applied to almost all characters in the film in that each person only has a single characterization. Parker Selfridge
(Giovanni Ribisi) is only greedy, Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) is only a bad ass, Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is only a racist colonizer, etc.

The only shred of interest when it comes to characters is Neytiri, but that’s less to do with the writing and more of the excellent acting from Zoe Saldana. Every scene she partakes in, she commands the set. You can tell from the first scene you see her in that she fully envelopes the
character. When I see Jake Sully, I only see the dry acting from Sam Worthington. When I see Neytiri, I only see Neytiri, which is something I can’t say from any of the other actors in the film.

Whether it’s due to poor writing or even poorer acting, it’s no wonder that the story is never considered the selling point
of the film.

However, what the film lacks in originality and interesting characters is made up by an incredibly realized world. Pandora, along with the creatures and environment, is one of the most beautiful places you can find in any film to date.

From the gigantic planet you can see on the horizon to the illuminating trees that brighten as you walk on their trunks, the world of Avatar can only be compared to the dryness of Arrakis or the natural beauty of Middle-Earth. Everything sounds and feels tangible to the point where you just want to live there. There were even articles made that showed many movie-goers feeling depressed and even suicidal because they wanted to live in Pandora.

James Cameron sought to make a completely alien world and he nailed to a T. This also extends to all the technical aspects of the film as
well. The film is gorgeous with beautiful cinematography (thanks to Mauro Fiore) and incredible visual effects. There are not a lot of films that nail you with the feeling of wonder and awe more than when Jake and Neytiri were flying the Ikrans across the skyline. The movie was a technical marvel back in 2009 and still is in 2023.

The film is far from perfect. The human side of the story can be a bore, the characters are all one noted, and the main conflict is too one-sided for any actual interesting discussion to be made for or against the Na’vi. But, where the movie had to shine the brightest for – Pandora, the culture of the tribes, the animals, etc. – it was a fascinating spectacle.

James Cameron said that he had a dream when he was 19 about the world of Pandora. He made a 45-page long paper about the world of Avatar and its themes. He even wanted to make it in the 90s but couldn’t due to the technology not catching up with his imagination.

The entire world of Pandora is made up from the dreams of a single filmmaker with a conviction to make a movie that invites wonder and imagination, which seems almost fictitious these days. We live in an age where Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. Most movies are either remakes of original works or sequels to 40-year-old films.

Avatar is not even close to James Cameron’s best work, but it didn’t have to be. It didn’t because the film did something that seems to be lost in so many Hollywood movies made today: it provoked fascination and creativity. 3/5 stars.

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