My youngest and I went to see Avatar today. According to her, "it's just a bloodier version of Fern Gully." My oldest has subtitled it "Dances with Fern Gully." And without Robin Williams as Batty Koda for comedy relief. But everything else is there; instead of fairies in a tree you have nine-foot-tall Na'vi in a Home Tree. In Fern Gully the protagonist is shrunk so he can interact with the fairies, while in Avatar the protagonist is wired into an artificial version of the Na'vi so he can interact with the "in-digs". It's a highly predictable movie wrapped in a lot of very expensive eye candy (which, according to published accounts, cost anywhere from $200 to $500 million to make). After sitting through the movie I came out with an attitude that can be best summed up by this shot of Neytiri, except instead of Col. Quaritch lined up on the arrow, I'm imagining it's James Cameron.
Since my list for the good parts of this movie is far shorter than my list for the bad parts, I'll just cover the shorter list. That list contains only two items: the performances of Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington.
I've enjoyed Sigourney Weaver's movies, particularly the Alien and Ghostbusters series. I also had a blast watching her as Gwen DeMarco in Galaxy Quest. She's always been smart and sexy in everything I've seen her in, and in Galaxy Quest she was smokin'. In Avatar, as Dr. Grace Augustine, she brings maturity and sophistication to an ensemble that is severely lacking in both (or at least not allowed to develop any similar capabilities). I first saw Sam Worthington in Terminator 4, where he acted rings around Christian Bale. What he lacks in Sigourney-style maturity and sophistication he more than makes up with in earnest energy. Call me old fashioned, but I respond a lot more to good acting and a good plot; I guess I should be satisfied with one out of two.
I'll say this much for Worthington's character, he puts a new spin on "going native" at the end of the movie.
What bugs me more than anything about Avatar is a key 'plot' element, and that's the inability of normal humans to breath unaided in Pandora's atmosphere. The atmosphere is certainly rich enough to support large intelligent beings, as well as very large sophisticated flying life forms. I also saw human-manufactured flying machines that appeared to be getting part of the fuel from the air (you know, like oxygen). I saw lots of burning, and in one scene what appeared to be a flame thrower. Finally, if our descendants are capable of turning human DNA into avatars that are identical with the native-born Na'vi, then why can't they do something simpler, like giving regular humans a pair of lungs capable of working unaided in Pandora's atmosphere?
After sleeping on what I'd seen in Avatar, I awoke with more questions and an even deeper dislike of the movie. Regarding the treatment of the Na'vi, I take a more Harlan Ellison view towards what might happen if a technologically superior force (us) meets another stone-age culture (the Na'vi).
Again, if humans have that ability to create and control fully grown avatars, then they certainly have the ability to conduct brutally effective biological warfare against the natives, as that would have been the most effective manner for killing them. An example from our own history can be found here, where it appears that in 1763, General Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet write about the use of blankets infected with smallpox "to Extirpate this Execrable Race." I cannot believe that if the Na'vi had been sitting on something as valuable as "unobtainium", and if the home world (Earth) was in such dire straights, that the in-country human population wouldn't have hesitated in the least to remove the natives, by whatever means deemed as efficient and effective as possible. No warning would have been given, no kindness extended.
Which leads me to wonder what Harlan Ellison thinks of this film?
Because Avatar seems to borrow so heavily from so many other films that I've seen over the past decades, it's inevitable that I should find key similarities with those films. That happened to me today as I was standing with the Labs at a local PetSmart waiting to have their annual Christmas photos. For whatever reason 1981's "Outland", with Sean Connery and Peter Boyle, bubbled up into my conscience. What probably helped triggered memory of this movie is the scene in Avatar where Giovanni Ribisi's character was putting golf balls into a cup. Peter Boyle's character was also into golf, and in fact had a virtual green in his office. Other parallels included the type of location: Pandora is a moon around a gas giant, while Outland took place in a base on Io, again a moon around a gas giant (in this case Jupiter). There's even a strong parallel with the Outland's Dr. Lasarus (played by Frances Sternhagen) and Weaver's Dr. Augustine; both are tough, independent, fearless, and just a little profane. Finally, Sternhagen and Weaver are both seasoned pros who put in excellent performances in their respective roles.