Jake Sully is a marine, wounded and confined to a wheelchair, who joins a research group as an "avatar driver", on the planet "Pandora". The group is attempting to befriend the hostile native people, the "Na'vi", in order to gain mining rights to "unobtanium", a rare and valuable mineral.
An avatar is a body cloned from DNA derived from a human and an alien. The human becomes a "driver", remotely controlling the avatar's body through sophisticated computer-to-brain connections.
Sully begins the project fully intending to gain the natives' trust, learning their secrets, in order to persuade them to relinguish the mining rights, or to break their defenses and overwhelm them militarily.
But a strong emotional attachment to one of the Na'vi begins to change his desire from one of conquest to that of love and respect for their culture. The climax of the story comes as the military machine of the humans collides with the stone-age technology of the natives.
The film offers several intriguing topics:
- Stunning visual effects
- Science fiction elements
- Disabilities in the arts
- Earth worship
- Indigenous populations
To my jaded eye, the computer-generated images are nearly lifelike. Facial expressions, movement, textures, and colors are all rendered in detail and striking variety.
The background images of Pandora are beautiful, as clear and colorful as photographs enlarged to the big screen. The machines and vehicles have depth and detail. The explosions are vivid and "explosive".
The primary sci-fi element is the link between the human brain and the soul-less body of the avatar. The film assumes a technology that can combine DNA from two lifeforms and clone a body without any hint of a controlling mind or soul. Because the avatar includes the human's DNA, a direct connection can be made between human and avatar. With the alien DNA, the avatar can breathe Pandora's atmosphere, poisonous to humans.
Linked to the avatar, Sully can walk, run, eat, fight, and make love...all things previously limited or nearly impossible when confined to his wheelchair. When his avatar's body sleeps, the link is dropped and Sully returns to consciousness, with only his weak human body.
The mining company's intention is to use the avatars to make contact with the natives, learning their language, their ways, and most importantly, their weaknesses and defences. If diplomacy fails, the military is prepared to overwhelm, neutralize, and remove the indigenous population from any areas needed for mining.
An intriguing fighting machine is a human-operated robotic vehicle, in appearance similar to a giant human, with two legs and two arms. It is very similar to that shown in District 9. The operator rides inside the contraption's torso, shielded by armor and bullet-proof glass. Sensor-covered gloves relay arm and hand movements from the human to the machine, multiplying strength many times.
On the native's side, a cool sci-fi innovation is the ability to link biologically with both a horse-like animal, and a flying dragon-like creature. Warriors on the planet, male and female, wear their hair in a single, long, braided ponytail. Apparently, the ponytail provides a direct connection with the warrior's brain. The warrior captures an animal, either the horse or the dragon, and inserts the end of their ponytail into the matching end of an appendage from the animal's head.
Once connected, the animal's brain submits telepathically to that of its rider, allowing the warrior to control its movements with thought alone.
This seems to be a parallel of the relationship between human and avatar, and perhaps even deeper, of the intention of the humans toward the entire planet of Pandora. It's as if the humans form a single mind, intent upon conquest and control, regardless of any pre-existing culture or society.
The actor playing Jake Sully does not require a wheelchair...he walks and runs on his own two legs. But he plays the part extremely convincingly. One scene shows him facing the camera in his chair, wearing shorts so that his legs are exposed. The appear heartrendingly weak and skinny, obviously emaciated from disuse. Jake is adamantly independent, allowing little or no help in getting in and out of his chair.
Until one researches the matter further, it seems obvious that here at last is a major film in which a disabled character is played by a disabled actor. It would seem that the director would have had a perfect opportunity to support the strength and ability of those who have an apparent "disAbility".
But no, you would be mistaken. The director chose to use a two-legged man to play a man confined to a wheelchair, despite the many disabled actors available. The film took over four years to create. There seems that there was time to rise above stereotypical casting.
By ignoring the talent and strength of the disabled, our society, which includes movie-makers and movie-goers, raises a banner which proclaims, "Only the physically fit and beautiful have worth!"
It's a shame.
This film relies heavily on the theme of Earth worship. The native population live in intimate harmony with their planet's plants and animals. We see sacred trees, holy groves, prayers to an all-seeing, but impersonal god who "does not take sides", but only works to maintain balance.
The big-screen version of Earth worship is shallow and inconsistent, based only tenuously upon actual experience of those who follow it. The part played by religion in this film is negligible, despite the frequent references. The war between human technology and the native population is resolved only by the intervention of the earth goddess, Eywa, sending a horde of animals flying into the fray. Hardly a god who "doesn't take sides". The natives fight against hopeless odds, not because of faith in their goddess, but only because they are trapped like animals and fear destruction.
A far better directorial choice may have been to explore a religion based upon a God with personality, a God Who actually had power and authority and purpose and mercy and love. But, the director only had a few hours in which to present a movie that would earn its keep, and it's best not to mess too much with the tried and true...
The history of Native Americans in the United States of America is loudly advertised in this film. The natives of Pandora are taller, and their skin is bluer, but their dress, weapons and society appear identical to that of the New World's indigenous population. White-skinned Europeans ran rough-shod over the culture, government, and individual rights of Native Americans, and the mining corporation and military leaders in Avatar appear to be doing the same.
Again, a two- or three-hour long film is too short to give much depth to the story. The conflict between explorers, settlers and invaders is complex and beyond easy stereotyping. The movie tries too hard to show their sympathy for Native rights, making the issue seem ridiculously simple and obvious. One would wish for a bit more depth in the "bad guy" characters.
The final element that stands out clearly is that of the military as a character of its own, personified in the battalion's leader, the Colonel. Again, limitations in time seem to have forced the director to make the Colonel cartoonish in his extreme disregard for the native population. The character shows little depth, no growth or development, no hint of anything attractive or sympathetic.
Curiously, the one "bad guy" that seemed to have depth and development was the corporate suit, Parker Selfridge. The story placed him in the middle, a nexus or bottleneck for the military, the scientists, and the natives. The only ones that didn't have a problem with him were the avatars...they didn't care who was running the show.
Selfridge was wholeheartedly a "bad guy". He wanted the natives moved or destroyed, but to his credit, either option appeared to bother him. He is seen initially as a shallow administrator looking only at pleasing his bosses and continuing to get a paycheck. But there are good indications late in the story that the callous, greedy, violent, vindictive company, supported by the gun-happy military was beginning to worry Selfridge's soul...he was acting like he had a conscience, and it was bothering him.
Even with the several weaknesses and disappointments, Avatar is a great film, filled with surprise, pleasure, sadness, love, thrills, and hope for the future.
Go see it.