There is not a single frame in Avatar that doesn’t look stunning and authentic: from the heavily militarised human mining colony to the beautiful forest planet Pandora that contains a rare mineral that the humans want, to Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi population who aren’t too happy about the human’s presence. In order to better understand the Na’vi, the humans have developed the means to mentally occupy specially grown avatar bodies that look like the giant, wide-eyed, opaque-skinned Na’vi locals. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who adopts one of the avatar bodies in order to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Na’vi.
Describing Avatar as “Pocahontas in Space” would not be too far off the mark as Jake’s relationship with the Na’vi people follows the white-man-assimilates-into-Native-American-Indian-culture narrative of many post-colonial films. However, Avatar is more in tune with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) rather than films such as Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) or Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which both contained a slightly more complex exploration of racial and cultural identity.
Avatar is still a white-man-saves-the-day film and it is occasionally guilty of some rather naff moments when depicting the Na’vi as noble-savage types. However, at the core of Avatar is a very simple yet sincere environmental and anti-colonial message that removes all doubt about the film’s good intentions. Besides, such gripes are just so incredibly minor compared to the sheer beauty and exhilarating visuals at the forefront of Avatar. The scenes depicting the forests and floating mountains of Pandora are truly wondrous, the Na’vi and the avatars look incredibly realistic, and the action is exactly the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from writer/director James Cameron.
Cameron has long been at the forefront of setting new standards for high quality spectacle cinema with films such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) rightly regarded as classics of the science-fiction/action genre. With Avatar Cameron not only sets new standards for the use of computer-generated imagery special effects but also the use of 3D photography, which has a full depth-of-field and is integral to the texture and sensory impact of Avatar. Cameron has made no compromises with Avatar from a technical point-of-view and in time it will come to be regarded as a benchmark film.