Avatar (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
Length: 160 minutes
Grade: ACBB=A
Budget: $237 million
Box Office: $2.721 BILLION (746 U.S., 1,975 Intl., likely over 100 DVD)

Written and Directed by: James Cameron (Terminator 1-3, Rambo, Aliens, Abyss, and Titanic)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver
With: Stephen Lang, Joel Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michelle Rodriguez.

Earthlings want to mine a lush planet with a rare mineral resource, but the indigenous species aren’t having it. So while the military prepares an assault, a team of scientists try to persuade them to leave the area peacefully by remote operation of bodies like theirs.

Entertainment Value: A
Well, you don’t just up and ear 2.7 billion for a movie by making it bad. If your goal in seeing a movie is to forget this reality by entering an imaginary world constructed for you with sight and sound, there simply is no better example than this. You’ll watch it, engrossed, for over 2½ hours and then still want it to go on and on. I didn’t go to see this in 3-D at the theaters, but I can only imagine how much more intense a visual experience this was for those who did. The plot is nowhere near as strong as the presentation, and especially if you’re familiar with Cameron’s other work (such as Aliens and The Abyss, specifically), this will feel a bit borrowed. But if you borrow from yourself, is that a defect? Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about Return of the Jedi and the Ewoks battling the Stormtroopers at the end of this movie. Nevertheless, this is spectacular, and I feel a bit sorry for the folks who complain about the content of this movie because I think it probably prevented them from simply enjoying a tremendous filmmaking experience.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D+, Language C+
PG-13 is just right here, and it’s on the light end of that I think. Language is moderate but rightly PG-13. The natives run around partially naked, but I don’t think there is any actual nudity for the blue people, and it’s unlikely to generate lust anyhow. There’s one romantic scene. Characters smoke occasionally. Violence is the big concern for younger kids, with a lot of intense sequences with people being killed.

Significant Content: B
Quite frankly, I think a lot of people misanalyzed this movie. Yes, it’s highly environmentalist. Yes, it’s anti-industrialist and anti-corporatist. Yes, it’s anti-militaristic. Nevertheless, in the context of the alien world created here, everything it’s saying is true. The real question is whether that alien circumstance translates in any meaningful way to our reality here on earth. If it does, then the implications are massive, but if it doesn’t then there really are no implications whatsoever. So, in protesting this movie, critics are actually inadvertently granting that Earth and Pandora are relevantly similar, which is exactly wrong. But the basic idea that an oppressive human being might learn a thing or two about harmony with nature by being forced into experiencing communal life as the Na’vi do is perfectly digestible. Lots of consciousness-improving stories depend on empathy or immersion experiences for the paradigm-shifting to happen.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
On the one hand this is extraordinarily beautiful in a way that can only be experienced. On the other hand, the plot problems and derivative feel of it detracts from this being truly great art. And since the lessons are so overtly presented without much invitation to discuss them, I can’t give it more than a C. But the real defect here, much to the chagrin of those who contributed the $2.7 billion is the ending. Oh, I know it was spectacular. I know it made the movie. And I know that James Cameron virtually had to write it this way both because of Aliens and just the necessity for the Pandorans to win. But the real flaw in the ending is that the Na’vi decide to adopt the human paradigm of fight and destroy rather than finding some brilliant way to co-opt or persuade them by their own methods. In other words, the chance to write his so that the humans are redeemed rather than merely vanquished in the end was a tremendous opportunity squandered, both thematically and artistically.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think the mineral being sought on Pandora is called Unobtanium? What is meant by that name choice?
~Why do you think the planet itself is named Pandora? Given the implicit reference to Pandora of Greek mythology and her infamous box, what connections do you see?
~Is this movie trying to say that the Na’vi are in fact the ideal alternative of what humans ought to be? What implications does this idea have for Native Americans as opposed to Europeans?
~How do you think American military personnel react to this movie? Do you think it’s fair to claim that the military simply does the bidding of evil corporations?
~In one scene, a soldier decides to disobey an unlawful order to do something which appears evil. How many soldiers are capable of disobeying an immoral order? Do you want soldiers to have that sort of conscience? Would you consider Jake a traitor? Do you think there is any danger of Americans being persuaded to fight against their own country because of this movie?
~Do you think this movie is dangerously environmentalistic? Or is it appropriately so given the particular circumstances of Pandora’s imaginary reality?
~Compare this movie to Aliens, if you are familiar with it. Why are the Aliens so evil and it so right to destroy them whereas the Na’vi are so good and it so wrong to destroy them?
~What do you think of the expression “I see you” in this movie? What does it mean? Why is it important? What does Jake mean about being in a place they eye cannot see when the community has rejected him?
~When Jake talks about the Na’vi’s idea of two births, how would you compare that with Christianity? When the Bible talks about its communitarian ethics and preference of other Christians over family, for instance, do you think it’s talking about something similar to what the Na’vis enjoy? Why would group membership for both be so meaningful and so precious to lose?
~When Neytiri’s mother says she wants to see whether Jake (and the humans) can be cured of their insanity, what insanity is she talking about? Is her assessment accurate?
~If you could have the symbiotic attachment capabilities of the Na’vi through their hair, would you want it? How would the ability to connect so viscerally with animals or other people change your understanding of reality?
~This movie is clearly presenting a sort of pagan new age religious view. Does that bother you as a Christian?
~If a world like Pandora actually existed, do you think we would have the ability to recognize something of that scope as a living organism?
~Who in this movie is portrayed as superficially savage? Who as substantially savage?
~Why do you think Cameron wrote the ending as he did? Do you think if he were a Christian who knew the Gospel he might have written it in a completely different way?
~Do any of the plot problems bother you? Consider the gravity applying and not applying on the mountains, the necessity and not of breathing masks, the failure to incorporate any of the other avatars like from the basketball scene, the unlikelihood that humans would leave and not return, the weird time issues of spending 6 years to get people to Pandora but attacking HomeTree in the next 3 months, and the motivation for the Na’vi to bother fighting after their first big loss.

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first encounter with Pandora.
~The tree battle.
~The floating mountains.
~Jake rejected by Neytiri.

Overall Grade: A
By far the highest grossing movie of all time, and for some very good reasons. There are lots of flaws here, but what sort of a curmudgeon would actually dare to care about them?

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