Avatar

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang. Directed by James Cameron. 156 min.
Classification:  M (violence)

This is a sci-fi fantasy that has been long-awaited, and is widely available in 2-D. Interest in its release has been less about its content, than about how was it made. . The movie is a revolutionary rethink of animation know-how and stunningly recasts its story in an entirely new form. It has all the expected elements of fantasy adventure, including warring factions, extravagantly designed production sets, ferocious battle sequences, and some surprising elements of sensuality. All are achieved in a form that expresses a unique integration of fantasy animation and live performance.

The story of the film is a little familiar. In the year 2154, a struggle exists between humans on Earth and the Na’vi who populate the planet, Pandora, far away. Australia’s Sam Worthington plays the part back on Earth of a paraplegic and a former patriotic Marine, Jake Sully, who travels through space and time to Pandora to help save his planet. Pandora has a mineral which Earth needs to solve its energy crisis, but Pandora’s atmosphere is lethal. To cope with that problem, Earth has created the Avatar program in which humans living on the planet Pandora are tied in their consciousness to an Avatar, which is a biological organism, remotely controlled, that is able to exist in the planet’s toxic air. Avatars are genetically engineered humanoids disguised to look like the Na’vi. When Jake arrives at Pandora, now transformed into a humanoid, he finds he can walk again, and he infiltrates the Na’vi, who are protecting the vital mineral resource by defending it against the invaders. Working as a spy in the Na’vi camp, Jake falls in love with the native princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and his commitment to the Na’vi and their cause deepens as his relationship with Neytiri grows. He realizes the Na’vi are a peace-loving race which is facing destruction. For him, the Na’vi  represent the good in life, and the humans represent the dark side, which is spoiling that goodness. Jake joins their side and gives the Na’vi crucial intelligence to assist them. The movie ends by Jake leading the Na’vi in an epic battle that will decide their fate and the future of the world, thus setting the stage for sequels that will undoubtedly follow in epic Star Wars fashion.  James Cameron, who gave us “Titanic” and “Aliens” directs it all with much aplomb.
 
Sigourney Weaver who starred in “Aliens” returns to play the part in the movie of Dr. Grace Augustine, a botanist, who is friendly to the Na’vi and who mentors Jake Sully. Stephen Lang plays Col. Miles Quaritch, who is the main antagonist of Pandora’s indigenous people, who fuels his hatred of the Na’vi with patriotic fervour.

What is most notable about this lengthy film, which is a fast moving tale of high adventure, is the radically different technology that lies behind it. Cameron uses synthetic, computer-generated actors, who appear to be real, but who do not exist in any physical sense. The process is something akin to the technology that created Gollum for the “Lord of the Ring” series, but takes animation to a new level. Cameron uses a special Reality Camera System that aims for maximum depth effect,  that is most apparent in the film’s 3-D format; two high-definition cameras are used in a single camera mechanism to create wonderful depth perception. The result is a movie depicting photo-realistic computer-generated characters. The technology allows Cameron to project directly onto a video screen how the actor’s virtual characters interact with the digital world in real time, while he adjusts and directs the scenes just as if he is shooting live action. The special cameras are able to transfer human facial expressions to the computer-generated images, and they simulate human sight stereoscopically. The result of the whole process is amazing, and this is seen to best effect in the extraordinary digital transformation of Jake Sully into a Blue-coloured, 10 ft. tall humanoid that happens to have remarkable expressiveness. 

For those steeped in the craft of animation, this movie is something of a mind-blowing experience. It plays fancifully, and intensely, with the dissociation of normal consciousness to make it seem that something else entirely different is happening. The Avatars are particularly unnerving in how human they are as robots. Many aspects of the movie are nightmare material for children; for young children, the dividing line in this movie between reality and the scary unreal is just too thin. But James Cameron, with the help of his special effects team, has delivered a startlingly different movie that offers cutting-edge animation. The film is bound to have great adult appeal.

Twentieth Century Fox Out December 17, 2009

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.