Last Saturday, PJ and I saw James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar. We both really liked it, which was surprising, since PJ dislikes 3D movies and I tend to be mostly indifferent towards sci-fi movies that aren’t Star Wars. Here’s the trailer:

Avatar stars Sam Worthington, who plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who gets the chance to participate in a special mission on Pandora, a moon on which a precious metal (unobtainium) has been discovered. The marines are there to “relocate” the indigenous population, the Na’vi. Sully’s special mission is to participate in a scientific enterprise in which humans virtually inhabit avatar bodies that are crossed between the humans’ and the Na’vis’ appearances. The scientists want to learn more about the Na’vi; the military wants them to help in the relocation efforts. Soon Jake  must choose between his mission and the Na’vi people he has come to love.

I suppose the main draw to Avatar is the special effects/CGI. They are amazing, especially in 3D. There a few moments in which the effects are simply meant to show us what can be done — a kind of cinematic bragging — but mostly they’re organic to the plot and overall look of the film. They certainly augment the movie’s appeal. Usually PJ finds the 3D irritating and useless, but even he liked these effects this time.

And the movie isn’t just effects. The plot is fairly simple and predictable — the industrialized nation/corporation/military complex is out to destroy an indigenous population in order to exploit their land. In the mean time, our hero falls in love with a native woman and ultimately has to choose between his new, simpler life with the natives and his old life and privileges within the colonizing culture. No one should be surprised with which wins out.

But these kinds of popcorn movies aren’t meant to be deep or full of unexpected plot twists. In fact, their commitment to convention and genre are part of what makes them fun — we like seeing what they can do with the space western/sci-fi conventions. While the main thing this film does with them is add amazing visuals, it also adds a lot of heart and a very leftist environmentalist/anti-colonial/anti-corporate message.

The latter of these messages is what I found most interesting. I found it fascinating that a movie studio — part of a mega, multinational corporation — creates a movie that articulates such a strong anti-corporate message. This message is mostly sentimental, which I think makes it all the more powerful since it appeals to our emotions rather than to logic. Clearly, Twentieth Century Fox isn’t threatened by this movie’s success, quite the reverse. So, it’s kind of interesting that such corporations have long ago realized that making anti-corporate movies is good for their bottom line. I guess this means that we should hate a movie like Avatar, since it pacifies any anti-corporate impetus we might feel by distracting us with a feel good, leftist environmentalist movie. But we like it any way, which is brilliant on the part of the studio!

Some of the blogs I’ve read have said that Sam Worthington is rather bland in this movie, but I disagree. I think he’s a big reason why the movie succeeds. On the one hand, he gives it a solid, steady center that the audience can identify with. On the other hand, he’s attractive enough to give it a little sex appeal. I also thought that he was a good actor, though most of his performance is as a blue creature at least partially created by a computer.

Everyone else in the movie is also really good. I thought it all worked together to create a really entertaining and fun movie. We mostly see where things are going long before they get there, but the ride is too much fun to mind too much.