Only once every few years does a movie come along that changes movie history. Ben Hur, Star Wars, Tron, 2001, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, E.T., Toy Story and Titanic are such movies. Enter Avatar. James Cameron, who brought us Titanic, has done it again, and movies will never be the same.
This is a 3D movie, and I recommend that you go see it in 3D. I wear bifocals, and 3D glasses usually get in the way. The best 3D shows I have seen were either in IMAX theaters or at Disneyland, and in every case the movies were made to show off 3D effects. There were nasty things flying directly at me, weapons in my face, and the movies were made to accentuate 3D. In the end I walked out thinking that 3D was neat, but I forgot all about the movie itself.
In Avatar, after the first thirty seconds, I forgot about the 3D glasses in front of my bifocals, and I allowed myself to get immersed in a new and alien world. I was entertained completely and thoroughly from the first minute to the last. It’s a two and a half hour movie, it felt like five hours, and I didn’t want it to stop.
The story is somewhat predictable and pure science fiction. The basic premise could be somewhat complex for a person that does not read much science fiction and does not stay on top of current technology concepts and applications. For instance, it is necessary to understand what an avatar is and in this article I am going to make the assumption that the reader knows.
It is 2154, the Earth is exhausted of its resources and its ecosystem is largely destroyed. Humanity has developed starships and established outposts on far away planets. Pandora is a large moon circling a Jupiter-like planet. Just the sky shots are priceless, seeing the massive planet hanging in the sky, along with other moons. In Pandora’s soil there is an extremely rare mineral that is desperately needed on Earth and costs $200 million per kilogram. Clearly, that justifies sending a battalion of marines, as well as scientists and miners to establish a base camp and mining outpost.
Pandora is a hostile world. The atmosphere is not breathable for humans, so they are required to wear face masks at all times when outdoors. The planet is covered with rich fauna and flora, all completely alien. The dominant intelligent species are the Na’vi, a humanoid with blue bodies, long tails and reaching twelve feet in height. The planet is mostly a jungle planet, so there are many animals, all huge by human scale, all the way down to forest critters and insects, all, of course, very hostile and utterly alien. Pandora is portrayed as a very dangerous and hostile world, where a human alone would not last minutes before suffocating, and even with a mask prey to many predators likely in a very short time. Humans survive in that outpost only in a military compound or in armored vehicles.
The humans are trying to get a hold of the mineral and to do it, they need the cooperation (mostly lack of interference) of the Na’vi. Inconveniently, the richest deposits of the ore are right under the main habitat of one of the tribes. A culture clash is inevitable.
The humans have invented avatars that serve as bodies a few of the humans can use to interact with the aliens in their world, their environment, their culture and ethical system. The “driver” of the avatar is in an electronic chamber in a sleep like state, and he takes over the avatar completely. Virtual reality cubed. The effects are mind-blowing.
At this point I will leave the story alone, that’s for you to experience as you watch this movie yourself, but I can’t help waxing about some of the concepts that fascinated me.
After about the first twenty minutes of the movie I experienced a shift of perspective, and I started identifying with the Na’vi, and the humans started being the aliens. Even watching the humans, experiencing how they interacted with Pandora and its plants and animals, suggested that humans were nasty little creatures from the sky. The Na’vi actually called the humans “sky people.” This is facilitated by the fact that the Na’vi, albeit humanoid, are twelve feet tall. In those scenes where humans and Na’vi are in the same scenes, the humans reach about to the level of their belts. The Na’vi are simply much, much larger. But with the perspective of the movie as I experienced it from the Na’vi, humans just became “little nasty creatures.”
This is a “green movie” with a message. The Na’vi reminded me of how we view, in romanticized terms, the culture of the original American Indians, living off the land, worshiping and honoring the land, and taking from it only what they need.
As always, there were a few things that bothered me. For instance, the Na’vi are a species on a planet that starships take years to reach. But they look like humans. They have feet, hands, knees, elbows, heads, mouths, eyes and ears like humans. In evolutionary terms, this would be completely unlikely. There were a number of reasons, I presume, Cameron made the Na’vi humanoid. First, so human actors can play them. It would be a lot more expensive to completely animate realistic aliens.
Second, to make a movie like this, the aliens have to talk. So they need mouths and voices and they need to be humanoid. Cameron actually invented a new language for the Na’vi, and the actors had to learn that language. But the main Na’vi characters also spoke surprisingly good English, another very unlikely reality, given the very limited friendly contact between the species. Again, this was done to make a working movie.
Finally, if Cameron had made the Na’vi realistic aliens it would not have been possible for human movie audiences to identify with them and shift the perspective the way it did. Humans could not read alien faces, emotions, intentions and all the other subtle cues we get in our normal interaction. So I completely agree, the Na’vi had to be humanoid, and changing their size, color and giving them tails was about as far as Cameron could go and still keep human empathy.
Being a science fiction buff, I also enjoyed the early scenes where we were able to watch the trip to Pandora and how the passengers are suspended cryogenically. The starship, awesome in 3D, reminded me of the starship in 2001. This ship was very realistic, with a rotating habitation module for artificial gravity and solar sails.
Unlike in many other science fiction movies, the science and laws of physics were not discarded for the benefits of special effects. This made the movie even more real.
I was in another world, unlike I can remember for any other movie in a long time. It was an adventure and I feel like I was enriched by watching this.
Do not wait for this to come out in DVD. This is one of those experiences you have to have on the big screen, in 3D, with all the trimmings. It is mandatory to go and see.