Thrilling Avatar an Immersive Wow
James Cameron has been developing Avatar for quite some time. It seems that way because the man hasn’t made a fictional feature film since his 1997 Academy Award-winning mega-hit Titanic (and, no, the IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss doesn’t count). It was as if the auteur behind The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss had fallen right off the face of the planet, 11 Oscars suddenly turning him into the action-thriller equivalent of reclusive iconoclast Terrence Malick.
That wait is now over, and the long gestation period for this supposedly game-changing epic has happily proven to be worthwhile. While the plot for Cameron’s latest isn’t novel (think Battle for Terra crossed with a healthy dose of Ferngully and add a dash of Dances with Wolves), the direction and technical advancements are undeniably extraordinary. Like no other major studio product this year, what the director has accomplished defies belief, so much so the just under three-hour running time passes by in an exhilarating nanosecond.
After ravaging Earth’s natural resources and turning it into a near-toxic wasteland, humans have come to the planet Pandora to harvest a rare and expensive mineral that can fix things back home. Unfortunately, the nature-worshiping indigenous population – a blue-skinned humanoid cat-like species called the Na’vi – isn’t thrilled to see their homeland mined by outsiders, the majority steadfastly refusing to assist these newcomers in their operations.
Enter paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). He’s given the unique opportunity to enter into Dr. Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) avatar program. His mind will be projected into the body of a Na’vi specimen grown from his deceased brother’s DNA. Company executive Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) want Jake to get in contact with the natives, hoping he’ll learn their ways and give the military an advantage if diplomatic negotiations fail and more forceful methods of persuasion are required.
With Dr. Augustine uncertain if she can trust him to remain neutral and follow her instructions, Jake takes to his Na’vi avatar like a fish to water. But as his relationship with the largest clan’s leader Eytukan’s (Wes Studi) daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) blossoms into more, the soldier begins to question the validity of his orders. Jake realizes the Na’vi are in the right, and with Dr. Augustine’s help, he and his new friends go on the offensive to ensure Pandora remains an environmental wonder and isn’t ecologically destroyed like Earth was.
There’s a little more to all this, but not too much. Putting it even more simply: Human beings are the big, bad European invaders while the Na’vi are the simplistic Native Americans in their way of conquest and empire, a handful of resolute John Dunbar’s standing with them in hopes of staving off genocide. In the midst of all the action, wonder, and chaos blossoms an interracial – interspecies – romance, Jake and Neytiri joining their bodies and souls together as one and proving peace is possible if all sides are willing to sit at the negotiating table in good faith.
It’s pretty silly, Cameron’s script heavy-handed and preachy, bludgeoning home its pro-environmental and anti-imperialistic message with the subtlety of an attack missile slamming into the side of a hillside bunker. If there has been a bigger, louder statement from Hollywood against the reasons behind the Iraq War and the former political administration’s rightwing policies I doubt I’ve ever seen it.
But all this overtly didactic bluster means less and less as the narrative rolls on. The love story between Jake and Neytiri is beautiful. Saldana, her performance via motion capture technology far beyond anything I’ve ever seen before, is magnificent. If Oscar voters had any gumption or courage, they’d leave their prejudices at the door and nominate her for Best Supporting Actress. She’s nothing short of phenomenal.
As to the visual effects, this is where Avatar is the revolutionary game-changer those behind the film have been proclaiming it was for almost a year now. While I can’t say the CGI is totally invisible, much of it astonishingly is, and even as the Pandora landscape explodes into seas of psychedelic neon colors, it frequently looks so realistic my eyes threatened to pop right out of their sockets.
Has a decade away from being behind the camera dulled Cameron’s substantial chops to stage high-octane action? Not in the slightest. While there are elements and scenes reminiscent of similar moments from many of Cameron’s previous hits, the adrenaline rush this epic provides is still far beyond anything else I’ve experienced in all of 2009. He remains the king of the world on that front.
The last third is a visceral whirlwind of kinetically staged mayhem that defies easy description and must be seen to be believed. Cameron’s attention to detail is second to none, and his ability to make sure that meticulously staged anarchy doesn’t inadvertently lead to haphazard visual confusion is dazzling. Ewok versus Stormtrooper comparisons notwithstanding, not since Ripley’s Marine allies were confronted with a nest of xenomorphs has my stomach been tied into such euphorically gut-busting knots.
The 3-D is the best I’ve ever experienced, and while I’m still not sold that it was necessary, there are moments of mind-blowing absorption that are downright otherworldly. There’s also not a lot to say about Lang’s hilariously one-dimensional villain, and I have sneaky suspicion Quaritch is going to grow on me the same way Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson did after repeat viewings of Aliens.
Even with its simplistic plot, Avatar is a stunning achievement in next-level cinematic bravado. Watch it on the biggest screen possible. Prepare to be blown away.
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)