Avatar

Wow.

Since I was a little girl, I have loved going to the movies. That feeling of fluttery elation, of arriving to the theater in plenty of time to grab my favorite seat, guessing which trailers will precede the feature and mocking the ones that look awful, squeezing the forearm of my date in giddy anticipation and squealing under my breath, “It’s about to start!”—I wish I could bottle that feeling.  Working at a movie theater didn’t lessen my enthusiasm for movies. Becoming a film critic (of sorts!) hasn’t eroded my rapture at a cinematic outing. Hell, I met my husband at a movie theater, and anyone who knows us knows how poetic that really is. I am a girl who simply LOVES the movies, and on Friday evening at the IMAX theater in Houston, Texas, James Cameron reminded me why.

I wish I could give Avatar an A+. I really do. 2 hours and 42 minutes of my life flew by in a fully dimensional pageant of color and life; I actually found myself holding my breath during action sequences and I stopped drinking my soda approximately four minutes in because I knew I’d never forgive myself if I had to go to the restroom and miss even one second of the heart-stopping spectacle.

However.

I’m just going to get this stuff out of the way in the interest of full disclosure, and then go back to positively geeking out about a film that I fully intend to see at the IMAX again tomorrow and then at least once more, fifteen bucks and holiday budget be damned.

The script is pretty generic. It’s kind of vaguely preachy, and although vaguely preachy about topics for which I feel vaguely positive (anti-imperialism, pro-nature), it still tends to reek just a bit of Condescending White Bullshit. And Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch is such an absurd cartoon villain, I kept wondering where he kept his eyepatch and robotic hand. Dude was RIDICULOUS.

But sort of awesomely so, for that.

I’ll explain the story briefly: it’s Dances With Wolves in space. Sam Worthington (Jake Sully) is like Kevin Costner, except hot and talented, and Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) is like Mary McDonnell, except giant and blue, and Colonel Quaritch is the whole army, and Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine) is amazing, brilliant and utterly kick-ass in every possible way.

I’m rarely one who accepts style over substance when it comes to films, but believe me when I say that not one of my above complaints MATTERS AT ALL. Sitting in the audience for this cinematic monument, you can’t help but feel drunk on the unadulterated spectacle of the thing. Your eyes are rejoicing and your brain just shrugs and joins the party. The IMAX screen was built for Avatar. I was truly engrossed, encapsulated in a world that could not be more fully realized. In Pandora, Cameron created a universe that genuinely resonates. He developed a language for the indigent Na’vi, created common names as well as the Latin binomial nomenclature for each plant and animal. Pandora is breathtaking and for three hours, I felt as if I lived there.

The bioluminescence of the planet and its inhabitants, the Na’vi, is one of the most stunning visual aspects of the film. Damn. Outstanding.

Yet I found myself perhaps most astonished by the basic human faces of the actors. You guys, they didn’t look like creepy dead-eyed puppets at all!

Blurg! I bet Robert Zemeckis shook his fist in the air, all “Curses, foiled again!” upon seeing Avatar. “How does he do that? HOW THE HELL DOES HE DO THAT?!”

Well, I’ll tell you, Bob. James Cameron does it by sitting on a script for 15 years while he waits for science to catch up with his imagination. And then he hires a bunch of geniuses to invent the technology that is still lacking to bring his wild conception to life. And also he spends like half a billion dollars.

And it’s worth..

every…

single…

penny.

But Avatar does have more to offer than pageantry. I found parts of the story incredibly compelling. Jake and Neytiri’s romance was stirring and lovely, an authentic revelation. Sam Worthington had a far heavier load to carry on those toned shoulders here than he did for Terminator Salvation, and I bought it. His struggle to accept the reality of his handicap in the monochrome world of humanity after waking from the vivid life he lives as his avatar was heartbreaking.

And Giovanni Ribisi was pretty great as a languid little suit. I found his characterization far more plausible than that of old Colonel McGrowly. He made an excellent soulless foible for Grace’s impassioned love of science and support of the Na’vi.

What I find most striking and wonderful about this and every other Cameron story is simple: James Cameron is a true feminist. And unlike his treatise against imperialism in Avatar, his feminism never comes off as preachy or generic. It is simply a matter of fact. In Avatar, in Terminator 2, in Aliens, even in Titanic, the women are fully developed characterizations, equal in story and strength and motivation and complexity to the men he writes. I wish this were always the case in Hollywood, but in a colossal popcorn-scarfing blockbuster, it’s downright unheard of. James Cameron writes women as determined and wise and reasonable. He writes them as real. There can have been no one other than Sigourney Weaver, an actress whom I adore, to play Dr. Grace Augustine.  She was simply marvelous.

Zoe Saldana played Neytiri, a warrior of the Na’vi, brave and loyal and persnickety and impatient. Her relationship with Jake grows out of her teaching him the Na’vi ways, and she is a fiercely resolute teacher. Her mother Mo’at (CCH Pounder) is the spiritual leader of the tribe, and she is wise and tenacious. And Michelle Rodriguez plays Trudy, a fearless military pilot with integrity in spades.

And those are just the main characters. The supporting cast is equally scattered with strong women on both sides of the conflict, good and bad, working their way through the background, not as if to make a point, but simply because that’s the way things are. I’m not a woman who enjoys many romantic comedies or dramas, but I get mightily tired of seeing the same weak clichés of women in horror and action films. James Cameron makes movies that *I* want to see, and he casts actresses that I respect in roles that I believe. I honestly do not have the words to convey the depth of what this means to me. The fact that I can marvel about it endlessly doesn’t speak very highly of feminist values in Hollywood, but in a film as significant and enormous as Avatar, I hope that some new directions can be forged.

Cameron is already talking about the two sequels he wants to create for Avatar, and though, much like The Matrix, a film this revelatory can only disappoint in future iterations, I look eagerly forward to my next visit to the splendor of Pandora. My next visit after tomorrow night, that is. And then at least twice after that before Avatar leaves the theater.

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15 Responses to “Avatar”

  1. Well, I couldn’t get past the pathetic excuse for a story! I love anti-imperialist stuff, regardless of bias (hello, Braveheart), but to be honest the formula was so obvious and lazily done that I felt insulted, to be honest.

    Also, I wanted Ribisi to be more evil. He was WAY too equivocal. His character’s behaviour was inconsistent. Worthington did a great job but I thought his switch from grunt to hippy was a little too quick (script’s fault, not his).

    I did like the bad guy though, despite the cartoonishness! And Sigourney Weaver is the shining light in the film for me. She was exceptional, and really puts everyone else to shame. I couldn’t agree more about Cameron’s mature treatment of female characters. I wish McBay would take note.

    However, he’s a little racist. The blue people are really really nice versions of the old movie standard, the dreadlocked ooga boogaloo people. Sorry to get all grad studenty but objectifying races or cultures, even when being positive about them, is not cool. I could make some comments about the “mating for life” stuff, but I’ll leave it at that!

    Glad you liked it! I’ll be watching it again too.

  2. Also, this is one of the best reviews of Avatar I’ve read, keep being awesome!

  3. I kept expecting the preachy stuff to really bother me. In most cases, I just gave a slight cringe and let it wash over me. I honestly can’t believe I’m saying it but the script is not what’s important here. The script is just the vehicle for delivering the most visually stunning movie ever. It’s like talking to a really pretty girl trying to get you to donate to Greenpeace. There’s a lot you can forgive here. I agree with you on all of your character reviews. I think Giovanni could have been a little more evil but it kind of makes sense that he’d be a little wishy-washy wiener of a guy. I also agree that it’s slightly racist, though so is Dances with Wolves and it won Best Picture. The Academy has never been 100% on these things *cough* Million Dollar Baby *cough*. It could just be that we’re overly sensitive.

    I really expected not to get used to the Na’vi while watching Avatar. But five minutes into our interactions with them, they just seem like normal human characters. I know that is what I had heard but I didn’t really expect it to be true. Nonetheless, JC pulled it off brilliantly.

  4. I’ve always been one that leaned more toward great characters than great plot, and am a geek for really good animation, so I’m definitely excited about this one. Great review, lady! You have helped me cement my New Year’s Resolution of learning Maya.

  5. Hey Beardy!

    To be fair, it is pretty amazing that it was so natural. He pretty much destroyed the uncanny valley for me. Maybe I should have peppered a BIT more praise into the movie.

    Also, subtitles look amazing in 3D. Har har.

  6. Yeah, John, that’s what I meant by Condescending White Bullshit. And yet, we’re all planning on going back and seeing it again! So I guess there is something to say for style over substance.

  7. Oh damn, yeah, I meant to write up the uncanny valley in my review, and I totally forgot about it!

  8. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am going to crash your IMAX viewing, because I plan on seeing it at least 3-4 more times!

  9. oh man this movie was incredible. and SO SO SO PRETTY. and i totally teared up! and completely forgot that the blue people weren’t real! because THEY LOOKED SO REAL. and, more importantly, *felt* so real.

    this was a fantastic review marla! i imagine it was pretty daunting to capture the awesomeness of this movie, but you did it with excitement and style and yr unique marla pants voice.

    p.s. i wish i could bottle it up, too.

  10. I want to see this movie!! Why have you all gone to see it 100000 times already? HELLO SOME OF YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE MY FRIENDS.

    However, considering I saw Princess and the Frog last week and it made me so dizzy I nearly passed out, I think I have to avoid it for the time being. :(

    So my next plan is to win the lottery so that I can book an IMAX theatre like 4 months from now and see it then.

    You guys are all invited, if you buy me a lottery ticket. None of this Little Red Hen crap.

  11. You were in Russia when we saw it the first time, and England for the second! You’re too globe-traipsing to have time for silly things like movies.

  12. Well, today I was in Port Arthur, and no one there would see it with me either!!

  13. I love “like Kevin Costner, except hot and talented” – but what else is Kevin Costner besides not hot and not talented?

    I described this movie as The New World meets Fern Gully meets Princess of Mononoke meets some sci-fi movie my brothers never made me watch (they were more into fantasy). Someone please fill in.

    Yeah. I agree with your thoughts on Cameron’s leading ladies. Come on Hollywood you can do it, a white male megalomaniac did it!

  14. Don Hamilton Says:

    Wonderful review Meredith! I haven’t seen the movie yet and now I cannot imagine not going to see it! If it’s that long, maybe we should go before your Aunt Deborah’s kidney transplant!

  15. I know you and Aunt Deb will love it!

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