Jake Sully has been asleep for six years.
More accurately, he’s been in cryogenic stasis five years, nine months and 22 days—the time needed to shuttle him and a crew of scientists and ex-Marine mercenaries from a decaying, resource-depleted Earth to the distant, forest-covered moon Pandora in the year 2154.
The job of the heavies? Protect miners, botanists and engineers from the perils of Pandora. Jake’s task, though he’s ex-military himself, is altogether different. His career was cut short by injuries that left him a paraplegic. Then he got tapped to take the place of his twin brother (a researcher who died unexpectedly) in the Avatar project, led by Dr. Grace Augustine.
Dr. Augustine has pioneered a way to make contact with the moon’s primary population, an intelligent, 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned, wide-eyed humanoid race known as the Na’vi. Blending human and Na’vi DNA, Augustine and her compatriots have bioengineered Na’vi-like bodies that can be linked through immersive virtual reality with "drivers," of which Jake is one.
And all of that is just the setup before things really get rolling in James Cameron’s hyper-animated technology experiment.
On the brink of being devoured by predators, Jake is rescued by a fierce female Na’vi warrior named Neytiri. Do Jake and Neytiri fall in love? Of course. But in the process, Jake begins to see the humans’ despoiling presence through the cat-like eyes of Pandora’s indigenous people.
Scowling from the face of the other side of the coin, Avatar’s villains exhibit a caricatured kind of hyper-colonial wickedness. Parker Selfridge, the humans’ corporate overseer on Pandora, looks upon the Na’vi as animals that must be annihilated. Likewise, Col. Miles Quatrich is a battle-scarred attack dog who’s all too ready to commit genocide.
It’s clear who is heads and who is tails here. And, naturally, it’s only a matter of time before conflict erupts. When it does, Jake, Dr. Augustine and several other humans sacrificially fight on behalf of the oppressed, outgunned population.
The sermon is delivered in stark tones. Yet it’s undeniably true that unprovoked attacks and the taking of others’ land for personal gain is, um, wrong. The film also rightfully elevates the Na’vi’s harmonious relationship with their environment—because while the debate can rage over what it should look like exactly, living peaceably with our surroundings is still a good thing. (On its face, that is. The spiritual components wrapped into this issue are another matter.)
The Na’vi again serve as a counterpoint to the humans who have wrecked their own world and are intent upon doing it to another. Yes, we earthlings take quite a beating in Avatar. But in some ways we deserve to, especially if we identify at all with generally rapacious materialists who have only one thing on their minds—digging out the precious, energy-rich ore known as unobtanium.
Just as the storyline involving the decimation of an indigenous population parallels early American history, so too the Na’vi’s spiritual beliefs often parallel those of Native American religions. The Na’vi worship a goddess known as Eywa, the Great Mother, a deity that seems both personal (the Na’vi pray to her) as well as encompassing the collective energy of Pandora’s living things.
Thus, the Na’vi exhibit high reverence for all plants and animals. And, as mentioned, the film’s environmental message is set against this spiritual backdrop. The trees, the forests and everything in them are not merely part of a natural ecology, but a spiritual one. And the violence perpetrated against Pandora’s creatures is not merely a physical violation, but a spiritual affront too.
The Na’vi’s holiest place is the Tree of Souls. Its airborne seeds are referred to as "pure spirits." Its branches—more luminous tendrils than bark-covered limbs—are used in prayer rituals. Twice the Na’vi gather before this tree in what could be described as services of corporate healing and worship. In the first, they petition Eywa to save the wounded Dr. Augustine by transferring her soul from her human body into her avatar. The tribe’s spiritual leader, a female shaman (and Neytiri’s mother), says, "The Great Mother may choose to save all that she is in this body," then prays, "Hear us please, All Mother. … Let her walk among us as one of the people." Amid those prayers, Augustine tells Jake, "I’m with her [Eywa]. She’s real." A similar service later involves Jake’s attempt to become fully Na’vi. Both times, the tribe is seated, undulating and chanting ecstatically.
The Na’vi at times listen to the whispering voices of deceased ancestors. And they psychically bond with flying, almost dragon-like creatures known as banshees. During a funeral service, Neytiri tells Jake, "All energy is only borrowed. … You have to give it back." Neytiri says of the Na’vi’s initiation ceremony, "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people forever."
Jake eventually prays to Eywa, telling her that the humans are about to destroy the Tree of Souls. Neytiri responds, "Our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life." [Spoiler Warning] But when the planet’s creatures come to the Na’vi’s rescue in the final battle, Neytiri exults that Eywa has answered Jake’s prayers.
A Na’vi leader calls Jake’s avatar "a demon in a false body." Col. Quatrich says of Pandora’s vicious environment, "If there is a hell, you might want to go there for some R and R."
The Na’vi may be aliens, and they may be computer generated, but their physiology still resembles that of humans. And we see quite a bit of it. Their garb is something you might see in a National Geographic pictorial of isolated jungle tribes. Which is to say, there isn’t much there. Both men and women wear little more than loincloths, and the race’s catlike tails don't fully obscure their backsides. Neytiri and other Na’vi females wear ornamental coverings that don’t really conceal their breasts.
As for the humans, a female pilot wears a tight, cleavage-revealing tank top. And Dr. Augustine is seen unclothed (strategically wrapped in vines). Later, Jake’s nakedness is similarly "wrapped."
Jake and Neytiri consummate their relationship in a sensuous scene that shows them kissing and intertwined. They sleep together afterward and are said to be "mated for life."
Augustine alludes to an old masturbation cliché. Quatrich spits out a mocking double entendre about Jake having found "some local tail."
The humans’ brutal attack begins with gas canisters. And it’s not long before copters unleash missiles that bring the Na’vi’s massive "home tree" down in a scene reminiscent of the World Trade Center’s collapse. Many Na’vi are crushed, impaled or wounded, and we see survivors departing in a line, weeping and wailing. These images recall the Cherokee’s forced migration to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.
Aerial clashes involve banshees vs. the humans’ aircraft. And while the Na’vi get mowed down by missiles and gunfire, many of their arrows somehow penetrate cockpits, taking out pilots and gunners.
The situation is similar on the ground. Scores of humans and Na’vi alike fall in a scene that’s similar in intensity to the final battle in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Also severe are several of Jake’s close encounters with Pandora’s fearsome beasties.
Specific violent moments worth noting include Neytiri’s taking out a viperwolf with an arrow and later killing a human with two well-placed shots. She also engages in a vicious melee with Col. Quatrich: She’s riding a huge jungle beast while Quatrich controls a mech (a walking, armored vehicle). He repeatedly stabs the animal and kills it, pinning Neytiri beneath it in the process. Elsewhere, an unfortunate human’s head and shoulders end up in a banshee’s mouth. Explosions consume man, alien and beast alike. On fire, a horse-like creature runs for its life. Jake's avatar nearly knocks the head off one human and hurls others to their deaths.
Crude or Profane Language
About a dozen s-words. Also, 10 misuses of God’s name (including six or seven pairings with "d‑‑n") and three abuses of Jesus’ name. We hear roughly 20 other profanities ("h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "p‑‑‑") and three crude references to the male anatomy ("d‑‑k" among them).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dr. Augustine smokes often and drinks a glass of alcohol.
Other Negative Elements
Political barbs cluster among the positive messages about peace, humanitarianism and environmentalism. As if to denigrate current American foreign policy, the film includes the lines, "Our security lies in preemptive attack. We will fight terror with terror." Somebody references the upcoming "shock and awe" campaign.
Go epic or go home.
That’s James Cameron’s way. His last feature film, 1997’s Titanic, became the highest grossing of all time (without inflation being factored in). And his other résumé entries include such well-known bombasts as Aliens, The Terminator and its sequel, True Lies and The Abyss.
Big, every one. And Avatar is bigger and bolder than them all.
Cameron began working on Avatar in 1994. Fifteen years later we have what some are saying is the most expensive film ever made—one that tops $300 million. And it’s not hard to see where he spent the money. Visually, Avatar is a feast. Lush colors and spectacular creatures dance and splash (and fight). Cameron has arguably out-Lucased Star Wars creator George Lucas when it comes to imagining and rendering a stunning world in a galaxy far, far way. And Cameron’s proprietary 3-D technology will likely enhance the experience for movie "experience" fans. (It gave me a headache.)
But we have to do more here than deliver an artistic critique. Extended scenes of near nudity (blue though it may be), intense violence and more than a little profanity pop out as much as the immersive 3-D imagery does.
Cameron’s message in Avatar is something like this: Genocidal plunderers are devoid of spiritual enlightenment and driven by their compulsive lust for another people’s resources. Time reviewer Richard Corliss wrote of the motif, "This is not only the most elaborate public-service commercial for those of the tree-hugger persuasion; it’s also a call to save what we’ve got, environmentally, and leave indigenous people as they are—an argument applicable to the attempt of any nation (say, the U.S.) to colonize another land (say, Iraq or Afghanistan)."
Says Cameron, "[In] the 16th and 17th centuries … the Europeans pretty much took over South and Central America and displaced and marginalized the indigenous peoples there. There’s just this long, wonderful history of the human race written in blood going back as far as we can remember, where we have this tendency to just take what we want without asking."
His insurgent solution? Get in touch with your world and its spirituality and stop consuming so much stuff.
Those are great, deep thoughts—to a point. But what kind of spirituality are we talking about here? Reminding me a great deal of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, Cameron’s depiction of the Na’vi not only elevates tribal customs and rituals, it blurs the boundaries between God and the environment. Here the creator and her creation are indistinguishable.
A postscript: Nine minutes were added to Avatar in a Special Edition theatrical re-release about nine months after it first premiered. According to Cameron, in an interview with the Washington Post, "There are short, sort of, 10- and 15- and 20-second bits that have been added back. And there are a couple of larger chunks in the one-and-a-half to two-minute range." One of the short adds involves Jake and Neytiri's marriage/mating scene, prolonging their sensual foreplay just a bit, but actually not adding anything more explicit to the mix. One of the longer adds is a death scene in which Jake ceremonially takes tribal chief Tsu'tey's life as the leadership of the tribe passes to Jake. Tsu'tey has been critically injured during the fight, and he asks Jake to finish him off. Jake does so with a dagger of sorts. We see the movement but not the contact.
A second video release, the Extended Collector's Edition set, hit shelves on Nov. 16, 2010. In it are 16 additional minutes of new footage and 45 minutes of deleted, never-before-seen scenes. To the untrained eye—and perhaps even to the trained one—the scenes are barely noticeable and of little or no consequence to the story. Most viewers will be unable to tell the difference—apart from the already long film's additional length. Most worthy of mention is the alternate beginning in which Jake is in a futuristic city on Earth before he is chosen to succeed his late twin brother, Tommy. We see Jake drinking a shot and trying to protect a woman who is slapped by her abusive boyfriend in a bar. A brawl results, and he's violently thrown out of the establishment. On the other side of the content coin, a family-friendly audio track (for the original version of the film) is included that's designed to eliminate profanities. Missed in the filtering process, however, is at least one use each of God's name and "a‑‑." Subtitles still contain curse words.