Avatar is the kind of movie I imagine my father rolling his eyes and saying, "Ugh! Cartoons."
It is animated -- or dare I say it -- CGIed. But the animation is almost believable and the characters so human that the fantasy bleeds into reality. We've come a long way from Mary Poppins and Roger Rabbit. Those talented New Zealanders who brought us Lord of the Rings certainly do not disappoint in bringing us the world of Pandora and its ferocious inhabitants.
The film uses the age old no-fail (=cliche) formula of underdog people with a heart of gold do battle with evil men bent on domination. Avatar is not exactly a film with a complicated plot structure. A human mining corporation has set up shop on Pandora in search of Unobtainium, a prized substance that unfortunately is richly deposited underneath a sacred tree. Accompanying the company man are a contingent of tougher than steel and sham wow Marines who are at cross purposes with a contingent of scientist-anthropologists, headed up by Dianne Fossey (oops, I mean Grace, played by the indominitable Sigourney Weaver). Without my revealing too much of the film, suffice to say that both sides take very different view on the fate of the planet's inhabitants. Unobtanium or no unobtanium.
Where the film succeeds most, though, is in a number of premises that underlie the film. The first of these is the creation of the world of Pandora. The blueish, feline humanoids that seem to represent the local intelligent life have the unique ability to plug into the planet's heart and soul. They become one with different species of animals that they are able to utilize to serve different purposes. Their culture is created on screen, a combination of celtic, aboriginal, native american, and african cultures. Or, in other words, any culture that is finely attuned to nature. Warrior culture, mythology, and rites of passage are emphasized, though it is a culture that seems to (very PCishly) respect male and female members equally. They are people who seem to draw a hard line between divinity and science, preferring, of course, divinity. This is not the Judeo-Christian concept of God, but the kind one sees in Miziyaki films, a nature goddess, all powerful and timeless.
The second of these is character development, particularly of the protagonist, Jake Sully, a Marine. Though paralyzed from the waist down, Sully proves to be a complex and interesting man whose life takes on new meaning as he serves both the scientists and the Marines on Pandora. Again, as with a Miziyaki film, Sully's loyalties are tested and he ends up not quite the man he started.
Finally, the third premise is the Avatar. The planet is hostile to humans, who only venture out with big guns and face masks to protect them from the atmosphere. The scientists make use of Avatar bodies, genetically modified organisms that are part Pandora inhabitant, part human. The physical Avatar bodies are controlled in the safety of the bunker by their respective humans in much the same way a person may take on the persona of a character in an online mass multiplayer video game. When the human relinquishes control of his Avatar, the Avatar body goes limp and lifeless. I did spend a good chunk of the film wondering what would happen if someone's Avatar should die while they were in it.
I shall say no more about the film except that it is moving, exciting, and works on many (but not all) levels. It is not an intellectual discourse, nor does it pretend to be. It deals with very basic aspects of human nature and covers territory many films have covered before. Yet, it has the magic and suspense that made other films like ET, STar WArs, and Lord of the Rings so enjoyable. This film, though, exceeds the others in that it looks so damned real. Maybe it is our video game culture that has conditioned us to accept virtual worlds, but this one goes beyond in every respect I could imagine. Even the technologically wizardry of the 3D, which didn't really mean all that much to me, but did add a layer of interest, was well done.