Earlier this year James Cameron put out a little-seen indie movie called Avatar. What small impact it had on the film community was due largely to its trendy use of new-fangled 3D technology. How will Cameron's modest sci-fi character drama fare without the benefit of the Roy Orbison glasses? Will it finally find the audience on Blu-ray that evaded it in theaters? Will James Cameron finally stop having to direct Bar Mitzvah videos in between film projects just to make ends meet? Most importantly, will I be able to maintain this joke all the way to the end of the review?
Statistically speaking, if you are currently alive, you have not only already seen Avatar in theaters, there's a good chance you're actually watching it again right now. In which case I applaud your ability to multitask, but you should really power down the laptop, you're disturbing the other patrons. If, however, you have managed to defy probability and avoid Avatar, possibly due to coma or being Amish, here's what you need to know. A few hundred years from now, mankind has traveled to the stars. Amongst all of the dust and dark matter, they have found a snazzy little world called Pandora. Pandora is absolutely covered with aesthetically appealing life forms, from flying technicolor dragon thingies to trees the size of Rhode Island. It's also chockablock with a handy mineral known as Unobtanium, which we know very little about other than that it's very valuable and it makes for really kick-ass anti-gravity desk art.
Naturally, mankind wants to strip-mine the shit out of Pandora to get their hands on all that tasty Unobtain-y goodness. Standing in their way are the local humanoids, the tall, blue-skinned Na'vi, who would really prefer that mankind stop tearing up their neighborhood and driving down property values. Mankind thinks the Na'vi are a bunch of primitive screwheads not worthy of respect, since they live in harmony with their environment and haven't even invented internet air pollution yet. Into the mix comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a soldier confined to a wheelchair after a non-specific injury. He's been brought to Pandora to become a part of the Avatar program, where Na'vi hybrid bodies are vat grown and operated remotely by human controllers as a way both to interact with the locals and to survive Pandora's toxic atmosphere. If he does a good job and helps shoo those pesky Na'vi off of the Unobtanium loads the Generically Evil Megalithic Corporation wants a hold of, they'll fix up his atrophied legs for him. Unfortunately for Capitalism, Sully soon falls for both the Na'vi way of life and for one lanky blue hottie in particular (Zoe Saldana as Neytiri), and a bloody confrontation between God-fearing commerce and Smurf socialism is inevitable.
Much has been written about Avatar's storyline not being terribly original. Comparisons have been thrown out to everything from Dances With Wolves to Pocahontas to Fern Gully. And it's true, the idea of an outsider falling in love with a new culture and siding with them against his own people is hardly groundbreaking, but I don't think this is in and of itself a crippling problem for Avatar. The problem is that Cameron's Avatar adds virtually nothing to this basic template beyond sci-fi trappings and an impressive amount of world-building. Once you get a feel for where the story is heading early on in the film, it's not difficult to predict nearly every story beat thereafter. Of course Jake is going to fall for the native girl. Of course they're eventually going to discover his reluctant betrayal of them. And of course he's going to reconcile with them and lead the charge in the final battle. The story unfolds exactly as you would expect it to, with little or no variation. It's as if Cameron expects us to be so wowed by the admittedly stunning landscape of Pandora that we won't notice what's lacking.
Terminators 1 and 2. Aliens. The Abyss. James Cameron has had a hand in some of the best genre filmmaking of the past three decades. Over the course of those films, Cameron showed an incredible knack for conceiving and shooting bombastic set pieces, balanced against just the right amount of tension-relieving humor. But more importantly than all of that, Cameron understood how to make all of those elements center on interesting, sympathetic characters. Even the most iconic action moments are grounded in character. The fight through the refinery in T2 is unforgettable because it's not just shapeshifting and molten lead; it's a mother defending her son at all costs, and a soulless robot proving to be very much otherwise. Likewise, Ripley's battle with the alien queen is a cathartic culmination of maternal fury. Some of the most memorable moments in Cameron's films have nary a gunshot nor an explosion to be found. Ripley and Hicks exchanging first names. Kyle Reese telling Sarah Connor how he's loved her since the moment he saw her photograph. Bud Brigman pounding the chest of his drowned ex-wife, screaming and cursing and demanding that she live. Spectacular gun battles and chase sequences aren't worth a damn if they aren't rooted in characters we care about and want to see succeed.
Avatar is missing this most crucial element, and because of that succeeds only on the shallowest of levels. Pandora is a stunning visual wonderland, but Jake Sully is little more than a cipher. He does what he does because the plot demands it, but we get no real insight into who he is or what he wants. Neither the Na'vi-loving scientists nor the heartless corporate suits and soldiers exhibit much personality beyond the most basic character templates. Nowhere is this more evident than in Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a character so cartoonish that he seems to have wandered in from an episode of G.I. Joe. He speaks in hard-ass military clichés, he's cruel for no readily apparent reason, and his motivations seem to be no more complicated than "The script says I do this now." Of all the characters, Neytiri fares the best, but this is at least partially due to Zoe Saldana's solid performance.
Like George Lucas before him, James Cameron has become so enamored with his box of technological toys, he's forgotten to put in the hard work on the most basic level of storytelling. His story exists to serve his visuals, rather than the other way around, and because of that Avatar isn't so much a movie as a $230 million effects reel. Yes, Avatar excels at creating that all important "sense of wonder" that's so crucial to all the best science-fiction tales. But that's all it excels at. Twenty years from now, I'll still be returning to the stories of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley and Bud Brigman. Jake Sully? Not so much.
The picture and sound quality of this Blu-ray are extraordinary, easily among the best I've seen. That's all the more important since without the visual splendor all you'd be left with is a mediocre, overly familiar story. Bottom line: while it won't match the experience of seeing it on the big screen (whether you opted for the 3D version or not), Avatar on Blu-ray is still one of the most impressive discs available, perfect for showing off your home-theater set-up.
Just don't expect much on the extras front. And when I say "much," I mean "anything at all." Avatar is already the top-selling home-entertainment title of the year, but did you really think Fox wasn't going to double-dip on a title this profitable? If you simply must have it now, be assured that you'll be getting a top-of-the-line presentation of this film, but if you're craving special features, just save your money for the inevitable Super Nifty Deluxe Extended Edition.
The rating above reflects the quality of the disc itself. I would have rated it even higher, but I'm deducting points for the complete dearth of special features.
Reviewed By: David Wharton