Remember the plot from Dances With Wolves? A soldier goes into a “primitive” civilization with the intent to oust them, he learns they’re actually a bunch of swell people, he starts to rethink whether they should be kicked out, he falls in love with one of them, and then he sides with them against the bad guys. Well transfer that story onto a distant moon 150 years from now, and you’ve got the plot of Avatar—James Cameron’s $300 million behemoth.

But if you’ve seen the previews, that’s not a spoiler, and no one is going to this movie to see a new, compelling plot. They’re going to see what $300 million will buy you. Answer: some pretty amazing special effects.

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The distant moon is called Pandora, and the humans are there because we’ve depleted Earth’s resources and have been forced to the stars. Pandora is the only place they can find a mineral called unobtainium (one of the dumbest names I can possibly imagine).Unfortunately, the native Na’vi—10-foot-tall, feline-ish, blue-skinned creatures—aren’t keen on moving.

Some scientists have managed to create Avatars—a mixture or Na’vi and human DNA—that allows humans to breathe the harmful Pandoran air and experience life as a Na’vi. The humans fall asleep in a cocoon while their Avatar bodies frolic. The idea is these Avatar’d humans will make peace with the natives, convince them to move elsewhere, and then the military won’t have to destroy them. But all indications are that they were planning on bombing them from the get-go. So why even have the Avatar program? Because there wouldn’t be a movie, otherwise.

Our hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic—and an identical twin—which comes in handy to the government when his brother dies after they’ve spent a bunch of money to get him in the Avatar program. So Jake takes his place on Pandora, and that’s where the film starts out.

When Jake melds with his new body, and is able to “run” again, it’s as exhilarating for us as it is for him. This is the sort of sense-of-wonder that Cameron is a master of, and the film is full of these moments. Jake’s soon approached by the head of the military, who wants him to spy on the Na’vi while he’s helping out the scientists.

Despite warnings about the harshness of the planet, Jake heads out and is soon in big trouble. Accosted by fierce monsters and completely out of his element, he’s saved by a Na’vi princess (Zoe Saldana in a really good performance). She takes him back to the tribe where he’s offered an opportunity to learn their ways and become one of them. (The film never adequately explains why the Na’vi would do this.)

From this point the film spends the next hour knocking our socks off with a visual feast as the planet’s reveals itself to us. The landscape is stunning, from giant waterfalls to floating mountains to lush jungles. The creatures are beautiful, creative, terrifying, and deadly. And everything is believable—there’s no Uncanny Valley here. The Na’vi were rendered using motion-capture technology—similar to that used for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings—and they just don’t look computer generated. It’s amazing. There are numerous sequences that are incredibly done, and the one that people will be talking about is where Jake’s Na’vi must tame a flying beast to prove himself to the tribe. It’s Cameron sitting back and smugly saying, “Watch this.”

If you can, definitely see it in 3-D. Cameron doesn’t overuse the technique, but when he does use it, it’s incredibly well done—especially when they’re tromping through the lush jungle. And though most 3-D films end up dark and muddy, which can take some of the vibrancy away, Cameron was obviously aware of this, and maintained the brightness and rich colors.

The film’s not perfect. The story is a rehash. Some of the dialogue is stilted and cheesy. And most of the humans aren’t characters we care about, but archetypes: the Crazy General and the Evil Corporate Head and the Gruff-But-Sensitive Scientist. And the Na’vi’s society is overly romanticized, as they are completely attuned to nature and noble and…just a little too perfect.

Cameron also gets heavy handed with his parallels between this conflict and the present-day one in the Middle East. He even goes so far as to use phrases such as “shock-and-awe.” It’s overdone and too…easy, and simplistic. But as a vehicle to showcase new technology, the film succeeds.

It should be noted that the Na’vi women don’t wear many clothes; barely covered cartoonish breasts are often seen. I wouldn’t call it titillating—but then, I’m not a hormonally assaulted junior higher! The Na’vi worship a goddess called Eywa, who is said to be all around them and in everything. There are a couple scenes where the people chant and sway and pray to the goddess around a huge tree—the Tree of Souls.

Avatar is not a new classic, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll make back the money they spent (I think they will), but it is a fine movie that will be the new benchmark for what a film can achieve through special effects.

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think Jake did the right thing by siding with the Na’vi? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it’s wrong to worship nature? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever experienced God in nature? Explain.
  • The film talks about people being born twice. How is the Na’vi’s notion similar to and different from the Christian idea of being born again?
  • What did the Na’vi mean when they said, “I see you?” Should we strive to see others the same way? Why or why not?
  • They believe the Great mother doesn’t take sides, but only wants to balance life. Do you think God “takes sides”? Explain.
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