Film Review: Avatar, A Film for Your Inner Child
By Arman Musaji
You’ve seen the ads and heard the hype, James Cameron’s Avatar has hit the big screen and it has certainly got people talking. The film has been in various stages of development for nearly a decade, and it has the largest budget of any film in history. Hollywood insiders have been saying that this is the movie that would set new visual standards in film, justify expensive 3d screenings, and capture our hearts in the process. The film has received nearly unanimous praise, despite some criticism for its storyline. Did Avatar live up to the hype? Well if my 3 consecutive viewings have anything to say about it, yes it did.
Avatar is a film with many levels and themes. It is about redemption, war, love, nature, spirituality, and lots of other things. Most central to the film however, is the theme of innocence which is not only central to the story but to the experience of watching the film as well. This movie does not ask the jaded contemporary audience for the suspension of disbelief that must traditionally be given in order to “feel” as though a fantastic story has real emotional weight. It doesn’t have to. The world of Pandora and it’s people are so vividly portrayed, so aesthetically and visually believable that if your mind is even slightly open to the experience, you will lose yourself entirely for the film’s two hours and forty minute running time.
It has been said that there is no fear as pure, as profound, as utterly primal as that of a child. The same can probably be said about the full range of human emotion. A child’s innocence offers no insulation from fear or sadness, nor does it dull their joy and curiosity. This translates into the experience of movies as well. When the right child sees the right movie for the first time, the psychological effect is probably similar to that of Moses confronted by the burning bush. It is a paradigm shifting, worldview altering experience. I vividly recall seeing The Lion King for the first time in the theatre as a child. It was one my first “transcendental experiences”. I had never seen a combination of color, music, nature, and art so powerful, and I have longed ever since to regain a fragment of that film watching “innocence”. It is this very “sensory innocence” that Avatar aims to recapture. It is the first film in decades that made me feel like a small child again, not watching a mere movie behind the insulation of jaded pessimism, but truly experiencing an epic hero’s journey firsthand.
The story, which takes place in the not-too-distant future, follows Jake Sully, a partially paralyzed Marine. He is given a chance to be useful again by taking his recently deceased brother’s role in the “Avatar Project.” This will entail traveling to the distant planet Pandora, transplanting his consciousness into an alien body, and interacting with the natives of that world. It is quickly revealed that Earth’s military-industrial complex wants to mine the resources of Pandora, and must either coerce or kill the natives to achieve this. Jake is plunged into this new world, where he rediscovers life, love, and his true self, with the help of the natives, and must then choose his side in the conflict.
Parallels have been drawn to Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, Star Wars, and a number of other surprisingly diverse films in an effort to criticize the familiarity of the storyline. Clearly Avatar borrows aspects of all of these films, as well as from classic science fiction, history, and mythology. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars series is clearly a central inspiration, as is his Tarzan series. James Cameron’s decision to draw from classic, universally appealing source material is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and the familiarity of the story is because it is the classic hero’s journey, which has been told in nearly every conceivable form already in all cultures worldwide. Cameron created this story in his youth, when such ideas were new to him, and that youthful innocence shines forth throughout. Avatar is a classic tale, presented with mind boggling technology and artistry, and told with the simple straightforwardness of an ancient tribal myth. I would remind critics of the familiarity of the storyline to consider the fact that just because a story has been told already does not mean it shouldn’t be told again even better, any small child will remind you of this around bedtime. To assume that a story told has lost all future value is to hop onto the downward spiraling bandwagon of cynical postmodern critics. It is to add mythology to the growing list of things we will not be passing to future generations. Avatar, with its vibrant unlikely colors, intentional tribal clichés, shameless celebration of natural beauty, and blatant archetypes as characters, is clearly a total rejection of such values. It reminds the viewer to open their eyes and see the world with renewed wonder and optimism. As the late-great mythologist Joseph Campbell would no doubt agree, will be given the same major stories in film as long as the medium exists, as long as stories exist, it is finding storytellers who can tell the tales with sincerity, contemporary trappings and artful skill that is important. James Cameron is one such storyteller. In my humble opinion Avatar is truly epic film experience, so see it immediately, and don’t forget to bring your inner child.