Avatar Movie Review: The Blue Future Of Video Games

In one of the most roundabout and expensive methods in history, James Cameron's new movie, Avatar, proposes that those of us who have honed our video game skills in the 21st century could become the world-saving diplomats of the 22nd.

Avatar is the $US300 million (or so) new movie from the director of Terminator and Titanic, a futuristic amalgamation of Cameron classic Aliens and Kevin Costner white-man-joins-the-Native-Americans movie Dance With Wolves. It is an American movie transparently critical of the United States of America, one that is simple in both good ways and bad. It is beautiful in ways only good, and, yes, in that roundabout way, it says something about the future of video games.

The movie occurs midway through the 22nd century, as wheelchair-bound grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) assumes the mission of his deceased brother, shipping out across the universe to the planet Pandora, where a private corporation has enlisted both scientists and a private military to help them obtain a nearly priceless element unironically called Unobtainium. The military forces, led by the scarred and scowling Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) itch to clear the planet's best site for mining by blasting away the natives who live on top of it. These natives are the tall, skinny, blue-skinned, cat-like Na'vi, who live in the massive tree on that site and are the visual signature of the film. The scientists, led by Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) utilise Avatar technology, enabling Augustine, Sully and others to transport their consciousnesses into artificially created Na'vi bodies and walk among the natives in the hopes of establishing either an economic trade or peaceful motivation for the Na'vi to move.

Early in the film, Sully, in his Na'vi body, is separated from his colleagues, lost to the wild and rescued by a Na'vi chief's daughter, Neytin (Zoe Saldana). What follows is a film about Sully's education of life amid the Na'vi, the battles that erupt between humans and natives and a crossroads decision about who is right and with which sides the key players will align.

Loved A Beautiful Place: Whether you watch Avatar in digital 3D, as I did, on IMAX or even in the plain old-school way, this is a movie of tropical-holiday beauty. It is an escape, on this planet Pandora, to an imaginative ecology of many-legged horses, helicopter bugs, hammerhead elephants and a variety of magical plant life that is so lovely that the setting alone has motivated me to try the Avatar console game, a game for which no demonstration of gameplay nor review had motivated me to play. If a video game can be my own transport back to this world, I will suffer through the reported mediocrity to see those plants and animals again. This is a dream world and the ultimate Al Gore planet, a combination of a lush green paradise and internet-like network of natural electricity, a place to which I am eager to return.

A Beautiful People: The Na'vi have been created with the reverence many North Americans now have for those tribes that lived between the Atlantic and Pacific before our ancestors and forefathers squeezed them into reservations. They are also digital marvels, an impossibly lithe but visually believable band of hunters and shamans whose every tradition, from wrangling their versions of horses and hawks to climbing their floating mountains is a thrill to watch. Neytin indoctrinates Sully into many of the aspects of Na'vi culture, nearly all of them a delight to witness.

A Video-Game Simple Hero: James Cameron, ever the romantic and sceptic of corporate power, presents in Avatar a love story intermingled with a morally clear struggle between those who would spoil a paradise and those who would not. It's seldom unclear who it is we should be rooting for, even though it is doubly awkward, watching this movie in the US, to realise early that the bad guys are not just the humans but those types of humans who would both violently shove native peoples from their lands but invoke a "shock and awe" military campaign in the interest of securing access to a foreign land's natural resources.

Some of that narrative simplicity is due for valid criticism, but what works well is the blankness of some of Avatar's characters, particularly Sully himself. Avatar, more successfully than any other film I can recall, embraces the simplicity that characterises many video games, which infrequently portray emotional depth among its protagonists. Games, I believe, do this as a means of transporting a player more smoothly into their worlds. In games as in Avatar, the lead character often feels less like a real being than like a vessel, even compared to a usually more believably fleshed-out supporting cast. The lead role is left more blank, so we might more easily see ourselves in it. So is the case in this movie, on multiple levels. If Sully's Na'vi body is the personality-less form through which he can vicariously experience the Na'vi's world, then his blank personality - he is, like a game character, defined more by his options for mobility (as a human only in a wheelchair, in his case) than his personality - allows him to be a vessel through which a movie viewer can vicariously experience his world. He is, as a movie lead, as blank as a gaming hero, which serves the mission of transporting consciousness into a foreign avatar well in this film, as it does in so many games, from BioShock to Zelda.

War With Mech Warriors: When it's not being an extraordinary documentary for an exotic environment that does not exist, Avatar is a war film. It's a high-tech, special-effects battle between Na'vi and the machinery of future human war. The battles are incredible, full of natives, animals, planes, space marines and walking mech suits controlled, too, like video games, in this case with their cockpit drivers using gesture control to make their mech fire a gun or throw a punch. The battles are exhilarating, though hopefully you don't mind rooting for human death at the hands of the natives.

The 3D:I'm not sure I was cognisant of it all the time, but watching the movie in 3D appeared to add depth to Avatar's already extraordinary visuals. This movie, as alluded to above, can feel like a vivid nature documentary and the 3D allows one to further the illusion that we're in there. It never felt gimmicky, as the movie doesn't waste much time trying to pretend to throw things out from the screen into your face.

Hated Transparently Political: Avatar makes Titanic look subtle. Cameron's last film was a romance, a disaster movie but also an allegory for the triumph of American self-realised ingenuity over the inherited privilege of old Europe. This movie is a guilty fantasy of Native American resistance against American occupation of the continental US. That's tolerable, as is the light overlay of climate politics that admits that distant Earth, where war has been waged in oil-rich Venezuela and Nigeria, is now devoid of green. But it strains patience to listen to Avatar's private American military commander promise a "shock and awe" campaign as he vows to "fight terror with terror". Stopping short of naming Saddam Hussein, the anti-science, bad-guy human commander declares that "our only security is a pre-emptive attack". I get it. But George W. Bush is not president anymore, and the equivalency of the war in Iraq with terrorism is the kind of blunt politics that I wish the makers of good science fiction would relegate to less sophisticated artists.

Rushed Story: Avatar treads much ground in introducing the viewer to so many places and cultural aspects of the Na'vi people. It skips an explanation for most of its science and relies on a sci-fi approach to YouTube to explain some of its plot and characters. That's fine, but it leads to so much that is unexplained that the movie feels hatcheted and crammed into an acceptable theatrical viewing time in advance of what I expect would be much longer director's cut. I'm not sure added exposition will improve the movie, though I do hope it plugs a logic hole that opens up two-thirds of the way into the film, when an event occurs that strains belief and that, unless they have a better explanation for it, probably should have spelled the doom for our hero characters right then and there.

Avatar is the fantasy of a new world and a revised way America could have or still can affect the old world upon which we live. It's also a light exploration of the possibilities of gaming, of being in another body and using its form to affect others. At times, in Avatar, doing that by getting in the seat of a mechanical warrior suit, is only a means to the destructive end, a successor to today's joystick-controlled Predator missiles and other tools of remote high-tech war.

But also in Avatar there is the promise that virtually inhabiting other bodies could bring us new cultural insights, could empower us beyond our physical limitations and could enlighten us to a new way of being. These are ideas that are more ancient than video games, more spiritual than a PlayStation, but they are ideas that we gamers have at our fingertips almost every day. Our future could be blue like this, in the happiest of ways. Avatar, the movie, represents a preview of that transformational and transportive possible future.

Avatar was written and directed by James Cameron and released by 20th Century Fox on December 18.

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Comments

    Avatar has several messages imbedded on its story some subtle and some more direct. It is an amazing well done movie with all the ingredients (adventure, love, action, philosophy, comedy, fx, etc) to make most of the viewers enjoy it. I did not feel the 2 h and 41 minutes of the movie pass by and seeing in IMAX 3D was an amazing experience. For me it was the BEST movie of the year and I hope the movie does well so James Cameron can make the sequel. thx Neo

    This seems like a mixed review more on the movie side by the way, i find little or no gameplay description on it, nothing that makes me even wanna try the game since movies games are almost always bad.

    To bad by 2143 we will all be dead.

    Excellent movie, visuals were stunning
    Although the end went a bit Micheal Bay'ish
    And also wouldn't you have weapons on that gigantic solar powered satellite in orbit.
    To be honest the story was predictable, specially the ending.
    Over all, GO SEE THE MOVIE!

      I need proof, link?

    "hough I do hope it plugs a logic hole that opens up two-thirds of the way into the film"

    huh?

      Yeah what 'event' are you talking about? I can't think of it.

    The story is basic earth. You have something i want and i will kill all of you to get it. Great visual. Loved it. Recommend 3D

    Ok, so I have this problem. Well, two problems really. Its school holidays, Im a single full time dad, and have 2 little girls, 9 and 11. I want to see this film!!! What I need to know is, is it a movie that I can drag me kids along to see as well??

    Keep in mind that my eldest daughter plays heaps of borderlands, has seen many horror films and is a pretty mature cool cucumber. BUT, my 9 year old watched Signs a while back, and I then had to spend the next 3 months staying in her room until she feel asleep..... Was my fault really... She gets frightened pretty easily, they are polar oposites my kids.

    Can I take them? Or will I have to wait until school goes back so I can sneak into town and watch it in 3d (if its still showing then)?

      I'd say it's ok. There's no scary bits, but a little bit of violence (eg people being hit by arrows). I wouldn't say it's any scarier than say Jurassic Park (which incidentally, was probably the last movie that captured my imagination as much as Avatar did... and it had the advantage of me being in primary school!).

        Cheers, thanks for your input Mr Waffle, you've gotten my hopes up :)
        Have yourself +2 Merry Xmas Points!

          Don't forget its about 3 hours in length. Kids may find it hard to sit though.

            Damn you Michael! I was all excited, now you've put doubt in my mind again :P
            ;)

            Maybe the beautiful scenery will keep em interested?

            Hey.... Anyone from Melbourne want to babysit??

              I would say a babysitter might be the best option, as it is a bit long. That said, once it is on DvD, then show your kids, as there is a point halfway where the movie could easily be split into two.

              Just wanted to let you know that I took my nine year old and she was captivated through the whole movie!!

              There were several children younger than my daughter in the theater and they all seemed to keep up with the movie...

              We did a 6:30 pm show, too. So, I have to agree... the movie was THAT captivating... even for little ones, it seems, to hold their attention through almost THREE hours!

              Oh.. and what really surprised me is that even though it was action packed and had threads of violence (as all war does) there was very little gore or guts... if any at all... :-)

              Enjoy!!!

                yeah blood and gore are really minimal

                id say theres a high chance theyd get captivated by the movie

                i got to a point where i needed to go to the loo but every time i do sumthing normally happens in movies so i started sitting there going come on come on fight alrdy

    When I watched it on the weekend there were kids between 7-15 yo at the session. Amazingly I didn't hear a peep all session.

    So I guess the movie captivated them. The movie doesn't feel 2hr41min.

    I just had to comment about this movie. I am not a movie reviewer and in fact, I only see about two "theater" movies a year. But, I was told by many this was a movie I should not wait for to come out on DVD... And man am I thankful I listened!

    This movie was simply amazing! Hands down and every thumb, finger and toe I have UP!!! I was sooooooooooo caught up in the Sci-Fi beauty, the action, the romance and even the sarcasm that reflects my personality to a 'T.' It delivered for most movie genre lovers!!!

    Yes, it had many undertones of political, religious and historical qualities and similarities... but as a whole, it was a story that stood on its own!

    I have NEVER written a review on ANY movie I have watched nor have I ever been compelled to do so. But as soon as I was walking out of the theater, I was texting and calling friends who I knew wanted to see it! I couldn't WAIT to let them know it was WORTH the time and money.

    Just like above... I found that the time passed rather quickly and I was left wanting even more! Even though I was completely satisfied with the ending!

    So... All I have to say is... LOVED IT!!! There's really not much more that can be said!! :-)

    Enjoy!

    Good review, I loved the film and yet felt the same about it's shortcomings. I don't think I'll watch it more than once so that the magic doesn't fade and I'm left with the niggling plot holes.

    Big thanks to all who contributed to my question!! I think I'm much more at ease dragging them along now :) I'm very relieved to hear there were other kids there coping fine.

    May you all have a Merry Christmas! :)

    i believe the story was predictable, but nonetheless this movie is an instant classic.the charactors are a bit dull, but i think the greatest chaactor in the movie is pandora itself.

    the world of pandora was totally unpredictable and the na'vi culture itself is inspiring.this movie did not feel like 2 hours and 41 minutes.cameron has set new standards in hollywood and i believe that any of the next major motion pictures of 2010 will be considered low budget films in comparison to this.avatar most definately will surpass how much it cost to make it and i am definately looking forward to a sequel. i recommennd seeing this one in 3-d!

    It's an suburb movie, even for me, the Anti-Gore.
    or as a lot of you would call me the because of
    that, the Anti-Christ. Opps wrong God, I mean
    the Anti-Gaia. Fun cubed. Drain your bladder
    completly before going in. And for heavens sakes,
    don't let it make you feel false guilt. Enjoy
    your new car and i-phone on your way to TGIF after
    the movie. If you can't do that, then ok, enjoy
    your masochistic self-flagilation and condemn
    progress and put on a burka or loincloth.

    i thought it was too long and way overrated. aside from its stunning 3D visuals, I thought it was a bland, predictable, sci-fi action movie filled with 2D characters in a story we've all seen before. Every scene in the movie, you immediately knew what would happen and what it's outcome would be as soon as it started. It was just full of typical character stereotypes that appear in all of Cameron's movies.

    Like the Star Wars prequels and other special effects heavy movies before it, it will be remembered for its visual fidelity now, forgotten for its unoriginal, boring, predictable plot tomorrow.

    I'm probably going to go see this soon. I've been hearing mostly postivie reviews.

    A question - must you see it in 3D? A lot of reviews make it seem like the must-see option, but 3D hasn't really impressed me in the past. I don't want to go see it normally, and then leave wanting more visual-wise, though.

      It doesn't use 3D as a gimmick, it uses it to enhance the experience. So it's kind of like watching a movie on blu ray instead of DVD; you'll still love/hate the movie regardless, but the experience will be more pleasant.

    huh,this film is absolutly amazing experience... we will bee in the new world of fantasy n amazing nature,this movie rocks mee,it has every thing action,drama,story,love,romance,adventur.....nd mainly huge visual efx.. go n watch th movie dudes,your money will be definetly worthy.. see n njoy....:D

    is there any adult themes(sex, drugs) other than violence in this movie?

    Jim said it perfectly i think, I have seen many great movies and this was NOT one of them. Boring characters, unconvincing love story, EXTREMLY predictable, and for a movie that is almost 3 hrs a lot was left to be xplained and most just seemed random. By random i mean to show off how much money this movie cost. The love story I found it was not only non believable but was laughable. I have NO idea how people say this is a good movie. I love James Cameron and i can now say he FINALLY made a subpar movie. 3D made it enoyable because i have never seen a movie in 3D. I wont even mention the terrible messages Avatar sends or the non believable wildlife on Pandora (helicopter creature)

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