In the weeks, months, and years leading up to this release, many have spoken to its proposed technical merits, others wondered if James Cameron still had it after his long absence from the big screen, while still others steadfastly believed the movie would be a failure. Well, it is here now, exposed to the world for what it truly is. Is it a game-changer? A disappointment? Something different entirely? Maybe just another wannabe pretending to be something it isn't? Have you seen it? What do you think?
Avatar is a fascinating film. It has so much to offer, yet is held back from greatness by bad dialogue and a story that is all too familiar. It is amazing just how fully realized the world is, the way it reveals itself as Earth-like yet completely alien; it succeeds at something that George Lucas sought to attain. When I first saw Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, I remarked that it was the first time I felt like I was watching things happen on another world. With Avatar I realize just how deluded I was. I feel pretty safe in saying this is what Lucas was hoping to achieve, at least in part. Set aside the story and dialogue and look at what James Cameron has presented us with. The alien world of Pandora is an amazing creation, from its look and feel to the way its ecology is constructed. Simply amazing.
Setting aside the effects and complete realization, let's take a look at the story. The story is a mish-mash of our own history playing mash-up with films that we have enjoyed over the years. Take the era of colonialism when England began colonizing what would become the United States and the events that transpired with the Native Americans, and blend it with a mixture of Star Wars, Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, and Ferngully. There are probably a few more that slip my mind, but I am sure I will think of them at some point or you will remind me.
The basic thrust of the story has an indigenous race being oppressed by a more advanced race so that a natural resource can be acquired. One man is sent undercover where he is mistrusted but gradually accepted by the natives. The oppressors make their move at a critical juncture and the undercover operative, who has "gone native," loses his standing only to stand with them and fight against the oppressor. Yes, it is very simple and very familiar.
This familiar story did bring the experience down somewhat, although it may have been a calculated risk on Cameron's part. The familiar story allows the audience to accept the alien world more readily. Then again, that could be an oversimplification and this is just the extent of Cameron's storytelling ability. Looking back over his filmography and something becomes clear, more than his ability to rake in money. It becomes clear that Cameron is much better at world creation than he is at storytelling. It is a good thing that he is so good at said world creation, because it helps when it comes time to overlook a film's shortcomings.
Avatar does have a story to tell. It is interesting if emotionally uninvolving. Then there is the environment in which the story is told and the filmmaking skills used to create this environment. In this regard, the movie absolutely excels and succeeds at taking everything to the next level.
When it comes to the world of Avatar James Cameron has unleashed the full strength of his creativity. It is a film filled with with things to look at, from the Na'Vi to the bio-luminescent fauna, dragon-like flying creatures, and the fascinating way the Na'Vi interact with their environment. The world takes new age beliefs to the next level and it works.
I was fully enveloped in this world and would have gladly spent hours more exploring it. More amazing still are the finely crafted visuals that make you forget you are looking at pixels. Add to that the 3D effect and you have one of the finest technical films yet to be made.
Avatar took more than a decade for Cameron to realize on the big screen. All manner of new techniques and technologies were created for his use in bringing Pandora and its secrets to the big screen. I would not go so far as to call this the be all/end all of special effects films, but it does open new doors in the way the various effects can be integrated.
James Cameron has created a technical marvel. You will spend a lot of time exploring the screen, wondering how everything works, how the eco-system works, and how humanity is actively working at destroying it. The 3D opens up the landscape and you will be trying to look around corners and into the deep expanse of the forest. I guess it helps to have that familiar story, it frees you to look around and have this wonder creep around inside your mind.
It is not a leap forward in storytelling, but the technology is something that is going to pay off in the future as these new technologies that Cameron has helped create will continue to evolve and push the limits of movie-making. At some point the storytelling will catch up to it and that will be something special. Until that time we will have to settle, which I will do with a smile, for familiar stories with wonderful visuals.
Effects and story aside, the performances are quite good, if not entirely memorable. Sam Worthington leads the cast as Jake Sully. It is an interesting performance in that he is the hero, but he does not always make the best decisions, is not the smartest, and is not quite the action hero one world expect. The supporting cast is peppered with decent, if slightly overdone, performances from the likes of Sigourney Weaver as the head scientist, Giovanni Ribisi as the corporate suit (think Paul Reiser in Aliens), and Stephen Lang as the military commander who just wants to kill the natives. On the other side of the coin, Zoe Saldana is strangely alluring as Neytiri, the Na'Vi princess who saves and falls for Jake.
Bottom line. Fascinating film. Not all that I had hoped for, but still rather breathtaking. James Cameron may have spent a long time away from the big screen, but he has made a rather triumphant return. This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed — just keep your hopes in check. Yes, I realize that sounds odd. Wait until you see the movie.