Subtitle: Shut up io9
(A review of the movie and a review of what people think the movie represents socially)
I find it impossible to separate Avatar from the hype surrounding it. I blame the promo monkeys who promised me the world would never be the same again. As such, while I found the movie entertaining on many levels, I can't honestly say whether it was a good movie or not. I was entertained, so let's just go with that for the moment.
Curse you internets!
Basic plot is as such: there is a beautiful planet discovered (actually a moon, but I'm not gonna quibble here) which has a source of very valuable energy known as unobtanium*. Mining of macguffinium is going swell until indigenous peoples (the Na'vi) begin to interfere - what with their living and playing and being generally intrusive into the places the humans want to strip mine. As a way to communicate with the indigenous people, the humans create Na'vi avatars that their scientists can download into and do their best to convince the Na'vi to leave a home that they have populated for thousands if not millions of years.
*It is my honest belief that a screenwriter used unobtanium as a placeholder. As in 'The humans are mining for unobtanium (be sure to replace with something better!)' and a studio exec refused to let them change it once the project was greenlit.
Our hero is an avatar driver who takes the place of his dead identical twin brother. After meeting the Na'vi he becomes a warrior complete with dragon-birdie as his steed. He falls for the chief's daughter and leads the attack when, to no one's surprise, the humans get gun-happy and start destroying ancient homeland in their quest for nocanhazium. An epic battle between humans and Na'vi ensues with our hero on the greatest dragon-birdie of them all while his girlfriend/wife gets to ride a velocikitty.
Notice that at no point did I feel the need to include the fact that our hero's human form is wheelchair-bound since, other than providing an initial reason for him to enjoy being in his avatar, it is completely extraneous to the plot. So why is this presented as a plot point? I don't know, I'll wait for the deleted scenes before passing judgment.
(Also, I don't know how much of Neytiri's vocalization was Zoe Saldana and how much was sound editing, but she really shouldered the burden on making the Na'vi a truly alien race not just in appearance but in movement and sound as well. So props to her for that.)
Pandora (the monet/planoon in question) is visually stunning. If you are one of the seven people who have yet to go, do see it in 3D, you will not get the full effect otherwise. Soaring canopies and beautiful flowers create a backdrop that at times I found myself focusing on more than the actors. The animals are exotic enough to be alien, but recognizable as being a believable lifeform. The blacklighting/glowing seemed a little overboard, but then again I don't live somewhere where native wildlfie lights up the night (lightningbugs, glowing algae and whatnot). If I did, I think I would have been less distracted by the glow-in-the-dark forest.
As for the CGI, it beat every other computer animated movie for a hundred miles with a failstick. It is completely seamless and I found myself wondering if some of the human scenes were CGI as they were identical to the Na'vi scenes. I'm kinda bummed that this movie came out this year as it will likely sweep the technical awards at the oscars and I feel a little sad for Star Trek which had some amazing graphics, but not in the same league as Avatar.
Overall, a visually amazing film with more focus on CGI than plot - but if you've enjoy a summer blockbuster or two in your time, you'll enjoy Avatar.
Now, on to the second half for those who are interested in message and theme and what-not. There has been a lot of noise on the internets about racism and race implication in Avatar and io9 (normally so good) ran an article by Annalee Newitz titled "When will white people quit making movies like "Avatar"?" and at it's basic level, wonders why us white folk continue to make movies where we save aboriginals from things they are apparently too dumb to save themselves. It cited such movies as Dancing with Wolves and The Last Samurai as examples of the white hero going native so that he can become chief and save the people he was sent to kill/convert/whatever.
I went into Avatar with this article in mind, also Geek Girl Diva's piece "Racism in Avatar? My response to io9" which is worth a read and sees the movie as being made from a standpoint of technology vs the little guy. Here's where I jump in, although I tend more to lean towards Geek Girl's Diva interpretation of Avatar, I can look at it from Newitz's point of view and still say you're full of wrong.
Yes, these movies have a common theme, but look at them together. In Dances with Wolves John Dunbar turns his back on his culture to be assimilated by the Natives and eventually use his knowledge of his people to fight against them. In The Last Samurai Nathan Algren is assimilated into Japanese samurai culture where he then uses his experiences as an army captain to fight against his own people. Avatar... I ain't singin' this tune again.
The 'white fantasy' as Newitz calls it, isn't that at all. The common theme here isn't that a white person will instantly become the most awesome member of the group (although that is often the case in these movies) it's a reimagining where, had someone been willing to level the playing field, maybe things would have turned out different. And that's what Dunbar, Algren, and indeed our blue-skinned hero are. They are anti-histories, what would have happened if - and do so while trying to live withing established history (I'm looking at you Inglorious Basterds). I feel I should note that in the two cited cases, it is clearly stated that the culture our white folks are hoping to save was ultimately destroyed. One can assume that the same will eventually happen to the Na'vi as the are blitzed from the air by future mining expeditions.
What we can take away is this: Us white folk like to make movies about level playing fields. If the indigenous people we've treated so poorly in the past had had access to the tactical knowledge and/or weapons that we had, would we still have won? We like an underdog, and we want them to win. So we re-write history so they do. It's not meant to pander to our guilt, but to allow us to hope for the future, when perhaps we will be the ones in danger from above.
In conclusion: shut up io9.