Avatar: A Critical View (Through 3D Glasses)

January 28, 2010

This much-ballyhooed show does indeed provide a strong cinematic experience. Apart from the 3D and powerful, beyond-cutting-edge special effects—and despite characters and plot that (observes one critic) “rarely rise above 1D” (see Andrew Jack on culturekiosk.com )— Avatar takes us into the future for an illuminating view of our sometimes ignominious past.

In this through-the-looking-glass view, Earthlings are the futuristic aliens on Pandora, the moon of a planet, 4.3 light years away, called Polyphemus. They are on a mission to mine Unobtainium, a mineral which is the answer to Earth’s energy crisis. As fate would have it, the largest deposit is located beneath the great Hometree which is sacred to the inhabitants.

Called Na’vi, these are humanoids—blue-skinned and tailed, to be sure, but modeled after ourselves nonetheless (like most of our fantasy beings: gods, devils, angels, Sasquatches, and our own Earth-visiting extraterrestrials). The aboriginal Na’vi are armed with bows and arrows and ride on horselike animals or on great flying creatures called Mountain Banshees—all of which they are in life-energy contact with.

The Earthlings, known to the Na’vi as the Sky People, operate from a military base. There, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang) and his soldiers seem, despite all their futuristic paraphernalia and contraptions, to still embody the old mentality of Earth’s militarists, who have sometimes engaged in ruthlessly slaughtering their brethren: the native peoples of America, Africa, Vietnam, and elsewhere. A few of the Earthlings have avatars, genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrids into which their consciousness can be transferred. One such is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic veteran whose avatar-self is wheelchair-free; he is sent on a mission to gather intel from the Na’vi.

As it happens, Jake not only becomes accepted by the Na’vi but chooses as his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the king and queen. When the information he has provided leads to an attack from giant bulldozers, Jake tries to stop the assault. He fails, but chooses to defend the Na’vi against the onslaught. He is joined by the avatar project’s scientific director, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), and a handful of others.

The stage is set for war between the Sky People, who attack with a great bombship flanked by helicopter-like craft, and the Na’vi, whose many clans join together in defense of their world. I will leave the ending for viewers to see, but let me sum up. To the extent that Avatar derives from our own paranormal myths—of alien hybrids, fantasy creatures, and New Age beliefs, including the supposed life-energy interconnectedness of all living things—it is just more silliness. On the other hand, a movie that disparages imperialistic wars and environmental abuse can’t be all bad—and did I mention the 3D and wonderful special effects, all of whjch make Avatar well worth seeing.