With The Terminator, its sequel T2: Judgement Day, The Abyss, and Aliens, James Cameron solidified himself as one of the all-time great directors. He's still remembered for those movies and rightly so. But in the late '90s came a juggernaut of a movie, both financially and critically — the historical romantic blockbuster, Titanic. It made $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office and won 11 out of its 14 Oscar nominations.
Since then, Cameron hasn't directed a feature film (he's mostly been making documentaries on the depths of the sea). However, before he even made Titanic, Cameron had a vision for a film set on another world and filled with amazing creatures. That movie was Avatar. At the time the technology didn't exist to bring his ideas to life, and so in the back of his mind it stayed for a decade and half.
However, as the end of the first decade of the 21st century approached, the technology had finally caught up with Cameron, and he was able to make his vision come true. The hype leading up to Avatar was monumental, with proclamations of it being the greatest innovation in filmmaking since celluloid. That alone is a lot to live up to, and I'm happy to report it does.
First, the plot: Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who one day gets the opportunity to experience living on another planet through the use of a genetically modified body known as an Avatar. The planet he'll be going to is Pandora, a world filled with an abundance of diverse and unknown creatures, including an indigenous race called the Na'Vi. Jake's mission is to learn the Na'Vis' ways of life and feed the info back to the humans off-planet. But once there, Jake starts to see life from the perspective of the Na'Vi and begins to disagree with the humans' prerogative.
This isn't "just another movie," one that you should maybe catch on the odd day off. This is an event, one that needs to be experienced on the big screen, in 3D, the way it was meant to be. Just simply looking at what's on screen for the whole 161 minutes (a runtime which absolutely flies by) is jaw-dropping, from the look of the Na'Vi themselves (who, out of context, look strange, but are completely acceptable as characters within the movie) to the wildlife that makes up the planet.
That's perhaps the biggest joy of Avatar: just experiencing this "other world" that Cameron has created. This film has as a selling point the fact that it's not a sequel, a prequel, a spin-off or based off of any sort of source material (although Cameron is no doubt been influenced by sci-fi material of all kinds). This is an original work, from the mind of the man who brought us greats like Aliens and Terminator 2. The scenes, for example, which involve the camera swooping through the jungle, following floating white "insects," or watching the Na'Vi gracefully and assuredly make their way through the jungle to practice climbing are all gorgeous to look at. And what makes them so are not just the vibrant colours or sharp visuals, but the way in which everything on screen has been carefully mapped out and detailed. You feel as if the camera were to suddenly swing round and zoom in you'd see every little pattern on the nearest tree or insect's wing.
The casting of Worthington in the lead role just solidifies him as the leading man of the minute. Having already starred in the blockbuster Terminator Salvation (coincidentally, the fourth instalment in a franchise that Cameron kicked off in the mid-'80s), and the upcoming Clash of the Titans, I think it's safe to say this guy is going places. He's got a certain everyman presence about him that makes him relatable and someone you can really root for. In the fourth Terminator he was able to make a half-man, half-machine feel totally empathetic, and here, even in his Avatar body (which weirdly looks like him) he's able to draw so much humanity from it all. He's doing very well for himself and I wish him nothing but continued success.
Surrounding him is an array of great actors and there isn't a weak link in the chain: Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver, plays the tree-hugging scientist who sympathizes with the Na'Vi; Giovanni Ribisi plays the money/power-hungry head of the operation to invade Pandora; and Stephen Lang is brilliant as the "shoot first, think later" Colonel Quaritch, a man who would love nothing more than to kill every one of the Na'Vi ("they are very hard to kill").
But much like Cameron's Titanic or Terminator 2, one of the major highlights of Avatar are the visual effects. And when the hype purported it was a step forward in special effects technology that wasn't an overstatement — this really is revolutionary stuff that Cameron has utilized here, and in fact the man himself even developed a new camera to get exactly what he wanted up there on the screen. The 3D here is used perfectly, enhancing the overall experience of the movie as opposed to just being there to have things jump out of the screen at you just for the sake of it, as most 3D movies do (Beowulf, Coraline, My Bloody Valentine, on and on).
Amazingly, as much as the movie is about the visuals, Cameron still manages to keep things grounded and even, at times, genuinely emotional. From the outside looking in, the blue Na'Vi creatures should be as alien to us as their appearance, but Cameron makes them as much human as the human characters themselves (often even more so). Zoe Saldana (who played the new Uhura in this summer's excellent Star Trek reboot) stands out in particular as the female Na'Vi who Jake falls for whilst in his Avatar body.
However, emotionality aside, it wouldn't be a James Cameron movie without several big action set pieces. One big sequence at the end comes particularly to mind — awe-inspiring doesn't even begin to cover it. There's as much detail in that one scene — bullets flying everywhere, ships exploding, arrows shooting, several hundred characters on screen at any one time — than I've ever seen in a movie.
Of course, all of this is possible because of the film's mammoth budget of approximately $300 million ($500 million has even been rumoured, if you include promotional budgets and so forth), which would make it the most expensive movie ever made. The question of whether it's worth the money or not is debatable, but the question of whether it will make its money back at the box office has a much clearer answer: yes. Although I don't think it will have the all-time record-breaking success of Titanic (it just doesn't have as much of a universal appeal as that did, particularly not to most female audiences), I have no doubt that people will be going out in droves to experience it on the big screen.
If I had to stretch to anything I thought was a fault of this movie, it would maybe be the story. It's not particularly original (someone aptly described it as "Dances With Wolves a few centuries into the future") and it's sometime easy to see where things are going. Also, as mentioned, a few of the human characters are a little bit two-dimensional. But those are nitpicks on my part, and everything else was so great they were easy to forgive and overlook.
Needless to say I absolutely loved this movie, not just because of spectacular set pieces and overall epic nature, but the visuals (and the technology employed to achieve them) are absolutely stunning. It's one of those movies that if you paused it at any point, you'd have an image ready to be framed and hung up on the wall. This — the return of James Cameron after 12 years away from the director's chair — is modern day filmmaking at its biggest, boldest, and most visually stunning.
Much like the blockbuster juggernaut of last year that was The Dark Knight, Avatar had an immeasurable amount of hype built up around it, but I'm glad to say it lives up to it. Mr. Cameron has delivered; he's still very much got it.