Avatar (2009), Part I
Updated: Nov 9
Tell me, how used are you to 3D? This cinematic invention, developed as far back as the 1950s, and through specially made red and blue glasses, allowed audiences to view all the action from within the movie they’re watching. And I mean that literally, for they crafted the illusions of objects or characters from the film leaping out at them, leaving the viewers to feel like they’re transported into the movie.
It was a huge trend when it emerged in the 1950s, resurfaced marginally in the 1980s, and took the world by storm again in the late 2000s and 2010s. Unfortunately, some movies, like Jaws 3D and Sharkboy and Lavagirl, made the mistake of prioritizing their 3D visuals over telling a compelling story that could have complimented its visuals.
There are others, though, that seemingly did exactly that, like Avatar. What are my thoughts on this movie?
Surprisingly, it’s complicated.
Let’s start with the story. In the distant future, a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully signed in to partake in a mission to a far-off planet called Pandora in his brother Tom’s place. What Tom meant to do before Jake took over was to be assimilated among the planet’s natives, which were humanoid, blue aliens called the Na’vi. The only way he would’ve done that was to inhabit the body of one of those Na’vis, or avatars, to inform the natives about RDA’s encroachment and evacuate them. RDA planned to settle on a designated area where the natives lived to dig up a valuable mineral called unobtanium, which would’ve sold for, as Selfridge specified, ‘$20 million a kilo’. Jake Sully went along with the procedures expected of him for the mission, despite having no previous background necessary to qualify for this mission, unlike his brother before him. Along the way, he met up with plenty of colleagues: a specialized scientist named Grace, who previously wrote a book on her experiences on Pandora and the Na’vi, Norm, a scientist who developed the technology necessary to transfuse the human soul into the avatar selected for them, Trudy, an engineer who piloted RDA’s flying machinery, and the leader and head of the mission, Colonel Miles Quaritch. I’ll talk more about this guy later.
Once Jake settled in and became qualified to partake in the mission, he was placed in RDA’s sleeping chambers, where he was wired, and his soul became transported into his avatar’s body. Upon first regaining consciousness as his avatar instead of his human body, Jake was over the moon about it since he now regained his ability to walk after God knows how long of having to move around in a wheelchair. In his ecstasy, of course, Jake ran into some of the Pandoran wildlife, with very little success in warding them off. As he ran from them, however, he ran into one of the natives, named Neytiri. Initially, she meant to kill him, thinking he was an intruder. But then, a soft, glowing white fragment, called the Seed of Eywa—apparently, this seed was the offspring of the most sacred tree among the Na’vis, the Tree of Souls—telepathically left Neytiri convinced that somehow, this visitor was on Pandora for a purpose. Trusting this intuition, she and Jake crossed paths, and she led Jake into her tribe, the Omaticaya clan. Despite their hesitation to trust this outsider, as Jake Sully explained more about himself — at least, without specifying RDA’s plans — he gradually grew in acceptance within their tribe. When he was not busy communicating with the Na’vis, he was telepathically sent back to his human body to recount his experiences with the Na’vis and their ways of living in the forests beneath them. There, Sully experienced every aspect of Na’vi life, from living naturally to communicating with the local Pandoran wildlife, exploring more of the Pandoran forests, and learning how to tame the wildlife for transportation, whether on land or even in the air.
However, the unobtainium that the RDA went to Pandora for in the first place? Besides being located where the Omaticaya clan lived, one of the main issues Jake had to wrap his head around was that the Omaticaya’s Hometree was precisely where the unobtainium lay, with an entire field of that mineral spreading out underground where their Hometree stood. Worse still, Quaritch told Sully that he had to assimilate within the tribe, notify them about what was happening, and relocate them within three months. It then put Jake Sully and his friends in a corner. How dedicated were they to the mission? Were they unpacking more about the Na’vis and of Pandora than Quaritch and the RDA would have ever believed or wanted to believe?
I was a year and a half away from graduating high school when this movie came out in theaters, and when it did, it exploded in popularity across the country and probably the world. So many critics and viewers alike were talking about nothing but the movie’s visuals and how they only got more magnificent when seen in 3D. Even if you watched just the trailers for this movie, it would’ve given you a solid glimpse into the imaginative world that awaited you once you walked into the theaters to see this movie. When my family and I decided to see it for ourselves, we could not have agreed more. The visuals and world-building in this movie were just marvelous. The film did a phenomenal job of transporting us, the audience, into a lush world that housed the most unique, imaginative, unheard-of, and mystical creatures you would have ever seen. For example, who’s ever seen an animal like a rhinoceros but with a large, bulging nose that acts like its shield? Or how about a creature that jumps up, spins around, and forms a bright circular glow with its wings as it flies? Or a forest ecosystem that tends to glow with bioluminescent particles that gave off brilliant bits of light down to within the clear ponds? How about a creature with four eyes, six legs, and air vents in its neck for breathing but is generally used the same way we use horses? Or how about the dragon-like creatures that the Na’vi use for aerial transportation, called the Mountain Banshees? All those creatures popped out at you when they did, and every time, they each felt unique and lavish enough to leave an attractive imprint on the movie.
Speaking of which, the Pandoran biology concerning literal connections felt very inventive and awe-inspiring. For example, the Na’vis’ ponytails contained a series of stringlike fragments that intertwined with those of other Pandoran wildlife. Once that was set in motion, the connection these two were to share would’ve gone from literal to intimate; the Na’vi called it Sa’helu. How else would the Na’vis have mastered their version of horseback riding or used the Mountain Banshees for flight transportation?
Oh, and let’s not forget the Hallelujah Mountains, the mountains that floated in the sky. Those were a wonder to behold, as they were fragments of earth and forestry hovering in the air as waterfalls fell off on their sides into the rest of the atmosphere as water particles. And, a good portion of them were connected by a series of vines dangling from them that the Na’vis could’ve used to leap from one mountain to the next. I tell you, Pandora was just a rich, luscious, deeply intricate biosphere that housed multiple fascinating creatures never before seen by man.
The Pandoran wildlife was inventive enough as it is, with its unique biological features and enough uniqueness to stand apart from what we usually assess among our wildlife. But when you look at the Na’vi, how they talked, walked, expressed their emotions, and wandered about in Pandora, it all felt so convincing that they’d leave you entirely lost in this world. Why? Because it’s just so massive, full of life, and filled to the brim with whatever you would typically associate with in a believable alien world. Meanwhile, the Na’vi emulated its humbler elements to a tee, partially because of the perfect visual applications onto the actors who portrayed them as the peaceful natives they were.
And once you see them all through 3D glasses? Man, are you in for a treat! James Cameron made sure that the technology used for this world and its creatures was believable and intricate enough to make them feel real whenever they came close to the screen or leaped out of it in 3D. They let you immerse yourself into its luscious atmosphere and forestry and leave you feeling like you’ve stepped into the world of Pandora and RDA, just like Jake Sully was. The animals felt like they did their thing in front of you, the robots and mechanical suits all felt cool when in action, the technology from RDA’s equipment was inventive and futuristic, and the attention to detail apparent on all of them was unmistakable.
Speaking of visual wonders, James Cameron first concocted a treatment for this movie as far back as 1994, even before his other box-office smash hit, Titanic, dazzled audiences in equal measure. However, despite wanting to release Avatar as soon as possible, he knew that the technology used to enhance the effects as he wanted it wasn’t up to speed yet. Because of this, Cameron patiently held off until the visual technology was on par with what he wanted with Avatar. At the same time, he also oversaw every detail in the movie to make the world of Pandora feel alive and the story as engaging as ever, down to hiring a linguist to help him invent the Na’vi language.
There’s a reason this movie was hailed as a hallmark of visual storytelling for most viewers; it introduced us to a complex, mesmerizing world and threw out believable 3D effects to spare. And we have the VFX artists to thank for bringing this all to life the way they did.
I also remember reading that the Na’vi and Pandora were inspired by a dream James Cameron’s mother had a long time ago. I find this artistic aspect most irresistible; just the idea of creating something out of the lucid capacities of dreams sounds addictive. Of course, that also explains the more dreamlike elements of Pandora, an otherwise alien world. Funny enough, this wasn’t the first time James Cameron created something out of dreams that he or his friends had. The same thing happened when he dreamt up the Terminator and when Swiss designer HR Giger’s nightmares influenced his design of the Xenomorph Aliens. And James Cameron had a hand in directing at least one of each of these characters’ films.
Now that I think about it, don’t you find it funny just how dreamlike Pandora is? Not only did the characters enter Pandora by having their souls transported into the Na’vi bodies while their human bodies were unconscious, but the film even began with Jake Sully dreaming of flying through a lush, beautiful world studded with forests. And wouldn’t you know it? He would’ve done just that later in his adventures throughout Pandora. And this indirectly tied into the debates throughout the movie about what constitutes the necessity to ‘wake up.’
Also, I just flashed about how James Cameron went from directing a film that portrayed villainous, bloodthirsty aliens to directing one about armed but otherwise peaceful aliens. I guess that displays one of his more diverse artistic talents in cinema.
Another element of this movie that swept me off my feet was the music by the late James Horner. As Jake Sully and his friends continued to blend in more with the Omaticaya clan, the high, soaring vocalists and the grand, sweeping crescendos perfectly displayed the glories of Pandora and the ways of the Na’vi. The beating of the drums, the rhythms, the chanting, and the like were also perfectly utilized in the score, heightening the more spiritual and native elements of Pandora and the Omaticaya tribe’s ways of life. Other times, the music even took some more otherworldly aspects, too, if for no other purpose than to demonstrate the more alien aspects of Pandora. And whenever things got very dark, ominous, sad, or triumphant, the music backtracked itself or lunged forward with the utmost skill and to masterful results.
How are the characters? Let’s see, they’re all given a noticeable array of dimensions to many of them, but I can’t help but feel like half of these characters were not as substantialized as the others.
Jake Sully, the movie’s main hero, felt like a standard, run-of-the-mill guy who was roped into his mission to Pandora to obtain its unobtainium. His character arc, I legitimately believed, had some admirable moments about him. From his conflicted feelings on Earth about Tom to having to adjust himself as a paraplegic after serving as a Marine, he accepted whatever he was given without expecting anything more to be achieved out of his predicaments. However, as he got more comfortable within the RDA facilities and then within Pandora, he began to open up to all the wonders around him, to a point where he began to evaluate what he held most dear in his life. Some aspects of his background were touched upon, like his relationship with Tom, but they were only mentioned briefly. The rest of the movie just had him explore all the richness of Pandora as if he was the audience’s guide throughout this whole adventure.
The scientist, Grace, felt like a firm, knowledgeable, sarcastic, yet tender woman whose experience with Pandora and the Na’vi before Jake tagged along provided some engaging arguments about Pandora’s functionality and its inhabitants. Case in point? Throughout the past several years on Pandora, she wrote a book about her experiences with the Na’vi and once even taught a school for the Omaticaya tribe’s children about English, resources, etc. So, this dynamic and background experience made her the ideal mother figure to aid the heroes in the ride, especially when the RDA’s plans to mine the land of its unobtanium started clashing against the well-being of the forests and natives she grew to love and appreciate.
Norm, the scientist who developed the synchronizations necessary to transfuse the human mind and soul into the Na’vi bodies, felt like a slightly dorky but generally nicely established guy. So, with his know-how in body functionalities and connections, he sounded amiable when he gave Jake Sully advice on the fundamentals of walking or when he tried to uphold the maintenance of human-Na’vi synchronization before things got too out of hand.
Trudy, the pilot who oversaw RDA’s flying transportation and warfare, felt a bit like a savvy, suave young lady with a few quips concerning either RDA’s orders, the conditions of the Pandoran ecosystem, or their mission at hand. And by the time she switched sides to help Jake Sully and his friends, she proved to be a surprisingly resilient badass when using some of RDA’s equipment for good instead of blind greed.
Dr. Max Peitel, who also oversaw the development of the Na’vi avatars for Pandora, didn’t have much to do in this movie except for establishing his knowledge of the Na’vi lifeforms for Sully’s advantage, and he soon became the sole relay between the goings-on at Pandora and the goings-on at RDA.
Before I forget, let’s hop on to the Na’vis.
Neytiri, the Omaticaya princess and soon Jake Sully’s love interest, was a feisty and determined Na’vi who wanted to ensure the safety of her people and teach Jake Sully how to settle into Pandora and the Na’vi way of living. Parts of her felt arrogant, as noticed in her initial distrust of Jake Sully because of him being an outsider and her slight frustration over being asked to mentor him. But for me, those aspects of her personality complimented her more righteous demeanor. They made her a generally fascinating character to watch.
Tsu’tey, the Omaticaya tribe’s warrior and the husband-to-be of Neytiri, showed some aggression and commitment in his valor as the tribe warrior. He, too, caught suspicions surrounding Jake Sully when he first set foot in their homeland. Unlike Neytiri, however, he grew utterly unconvinced of his devotion to the Omaticayas or even his place within the tribe until Jake had to prove himself to him.
Neytiri’s mother, Mo’at, felt like a slightly mysterious woman who had mystical qualities and was hailed as the de-facto guru of the clan. Her mysticism and communications with the Na’vis’ deity, Eywa, demonstrated her as a wise and observant, sharp woman who reserved her judgment on anyone depending on what should occur as their goddess saw fit.
Looking at these characters through, however, I can’t help but feel as if they were surprisingly light in terms of character development in general. Some got the highlight, like Jake Sully and Grace, and arguably Neytiri, but the others just felt like they had only a decent portion of valuable contribution as individual characters in a story about traveling to new worlds and discovering rich natural treasures.
Of course, maybe the reason I was so invested in these characters in the first place may lie more in the performances. All the actors who starred as humans or Na’vis carried the movie through with emotional fluctuations and physical maneuverability. Sigourney Weaver added tremendous amounts of roughness and love to Grace. Michelle Rodriguez infused Trudy with an irresistible sense of sass. Joel David Moore balanced out his sophisticatedly geeky mannerisms with surprising tenderness as Norm. And Sam Worthington expressed Jake Sully’s humble tough-guy mannerisms and the ferocious determination of a warrior-to-be, which helps given that his character served as a Marine.
And the actors playing the Na’vis? My God, weren’t they incredible? They dove deep into their characters and honed the appropriate level of vocal tones and expressions to emulate their characters’ more local, indigenous aspects. CCH Pounder expressed the perfect shaman-like tendencies for Mo’at, Wes Study sulked in his no-nonsense demeanor as the committed leader of the tribe—and Neytiri’s father—Eytukan, and Las Alonso relished in the fierceness and pride of Tsu’tey. But for my money, I think this movie made Zoe Saldana a star because she was a genuine breakthrough! From pure joy to scornful frustration and utterly painful heartbreak, many of Saldana’s emotional currents felt very real, and I felt for her every time.
But now, let’s talk about what many people deemed as the most problematic aspect of the entire movie: the story. Many viewers decried it as a beat-by-beat mimicry of the general familiar elements we’ve seen before in other films that dealt with the environment or assimilating into a native tribe. So now, let me assess this film based on the most popular comparisons made with Avatar to other examples of such scenarios in cinema.
Let’s see here. From Dances with Wolves:
A war veteran leaving behind his originating human home for the wilderness? Check.
Falling in love with one of the local natives and assimilating to her tribe? Check.
A young man joining an expedition that planned to harvest off a nearby forest’s resources? Check.
Falling in love with the local princess of the forest? Check.
Trying to ward his human coworkers away from the pathways where the construction work was to occur? Check.
A significant portion of the forest being destroyed in their wake? Check.
From Disney’s Pocahontas:
A young man joining an expedition that planned to harvest off the forest’s valuable minerals? Check.
Falling in love with the daughter of the native tribe? Check.
Learning about the joys of nature with her? Check.
Engaging in confrontations with the local warrior who was to be the princess’ husband? Check.
Learning about a mystical tree that housed one or all of the souls of the tribe’s ancestors? Check.
I agree that the story could’ve engaged in more creative routes with these setups. Regardless, the world-building, visual effects, music, performances, and even some of the characterizations were so spirited and vibrant that those were the main reasons this movie worked the way it did.
Now, at this rate, I probably know what you’re all going to ask me: what about the villains?
Yeah, I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Join me for Part II…
Elvy, C. (2019, August 29). Why the First Avatar Took So Long to Make. ScreenRant. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://screenrant.com/avatar-movie-development-long-reason/