I usually don’t like to write reviews of a movie until after a second viewing, but in the case of Avatar, I think I should have written one immediately afterward. I don’t have any unique insights to add about the plot of the film or the perceived weakness of the storyline. Yes, it’s the story of Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves. There really aren’t that many new plot ideas under the sun. But what I do want to talk about is something that I have never seen done so well before and was the highlight of the film for me. Never before have I been so thoroughly convinced that I was seeing an alien world.
The weakness of creating good science fiction has always been that budgets and technology limit how alien a setting can be. The original Star Wars trilogy featured desert-like Tattooine, shot on location in Tunisia; Hoth, an ice planet that could have been at our own poles; Dagobah, a swamp; the cloud city of Bespin; and the forest moon of Endor, which has the same redwoods I’ve seen near San Francisco. Even the new trilogy gave us but glances at truly alien landscapes, and most of them had entirely earthlike appearances. A few of them, only seen in glimpses, looked truly alien, and they looked like the setting in Willy Wonka. But in Avatar, we see a truly alien environment and it’s entirely believable.
Upon arrival on Pandora our anchor, Jake Sully, sees a vast jungle that looks entirely earthly. But when his avatar starts exploring the place, we are introduced quickly to the unique plant life, as well as a few of the predators that roam freely. The dangers of the planet become all too clear. Everything is different. The trees have a bioelectrical network that rivals the human brain. The tendrils that come out of the Na’vi’s hair interact with the tendrils of the animals they use for travel and hunting. They live with a spiritual connection to their environment that is (I loved this line) “measurable.”
I think that no matter the weakness in the story, the setting gives us a sense of immersion that gives the story more credibility. The viewer more easily identifies with the Na’vi because the nine-foot tall blue people seem to really belong to the world that they defend. It’s not just another Earthlike environment that harkens back to Civil War-era America with Native American allegories. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief I can muster when I see a famous actor like Kevin Costner running around with Graham Greene. I know their faces too well and know that they don’t belong in the 19th century old west. But in Avatar, Pandora really feels like it belongs to the Na’vi. And so it does.