When it comes to bringing forth sheer spectacle in a darkened movie theater, James Cameron is the self-proclaimed King of the World. When Titanic won 11 Oscars and then moved on to dominate the box office with a total lifetime gross of nearly one billion dollars worldwide, the title was very deserving. That was 12 years ago.
During his hiatus, he has dedicated oodles of his own money in order to bring us the next big thing in filmmaking. While 3-D technology has provided its fair share of the good, the bad, and the overrated (Up, Jaws 3-D, and Coraline), it is here to stay.
With a $241 million worldwide opening weekend it appears that while no one would say it’s the most strongly plotted film ever, its shortcomings in the story department are more than made up for as writer/director Cameron ushers in the next decade with visuals of the likes you’ve never seen before. Finally, 3-D technology is used to completely immerse the audience in this futuristic world instead of simply using gimmicks to throw objects in your face.
Cameron has never been the greatest storyteller and that’s not what his strength is even if he’s written or co-written all but one of his features. What Cameron brings to the table with each film is a new sense of shock and awe to the senses. Sure, there are elements heavily borrowed from other films, mostly Dances with Wolves and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, but since when do directors have to be completely original to tell a compelling fantasy?
Titanic gave us a fictionalized account of the infamous sinking ship filled with stock characters and a generic romance. What brought me back three times was to witness the audacious moments as the boat goes down. True Lies gave us Cameron’s third Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that was simply a family dramedy where the father happens to be a spy.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a huge step forward for both sequels and computer-generated special effects. While a robot was able to make a fanboy cry over the sight of a thumb sinking into molten steel, the plot was not what drove the film. Anyone who’s crying foul should turn back to the sci-fi classic and take it all into account again.
When he gave us both the theatrical and director’s cut of The Abyss there were many on both sides of the fence who felt shortchanged with the two radically different endings. Aliens was essentially one of the most well-made action films set in space, the original Terminator was very basic and a true classic thriller with sci-fi overtones, while the less said about his only guilty pleasure entry, Piranha 2: The Spawning, the better.
In the far future, 2154 to be exact, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is being recruited by the military to take the place of his departed twin brother, Tom – a scientist – and travel to the planet Pandora. It is explained that the reason for his selection is that as a twin he is genetically identical to his brother and therefore able to control Tom’s avatar.
Avatars are genetically bred human-Na’vi hybrids used by the government to interact with the local inhabitants of Pandora who happen to be sitting on the planet’s largest deposit of Unobtanium, which can be used to save Earth from an energy crisis.
Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) has other plans for Jake and uses Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang) to convince Jake to play double agent against the scientific side of things. They want Jake to either convince the Na’vi to leave their home and relocate or bring back information about the tree they live within in case the military needs to force the Na’vi out.
While he's in deep cover, the Na’vi wind up making Jake one of their own after he is saved and trained by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Also, after being the newest Na’vi inductee, Jake mates with Neytiri but none too soon before the military begins to lose its patience and destroys an ancient territory, almost killing Jake and Neytiri. After Jake attacks one of the bulldozers, Colonel Quatrich decides that Jake has chosen sides and that the military must now be forced to drive the Na’vi out whether he has to take out Jake along with them or not.
Many complaints have been made about the lack of story and film's long (two hour and 40 minutes) runtime. Anyone going into the film looking for mind-blowing social commentary is sure to be disappointed. What James Cameron has provided is a huge leap into the future of filmmaking.
Through the use of motion-capture, CGI, and a boatload of money, Cameron has given a huge middle finger to George Lucas and his ill-conceived trilogy of prequels and Michael Bay, who can’t hold his camera still long enough to see or comprehend anything happening on screen. Jar Jar Binks the Na’vi are definitely not.
Robert Zemekis should also pay attention to what’s happening here as the biggest trumpeter of motion-capture. Leave it to Cameron and Peter Jackson to give us the best uses of this style to date. The horrendous backfire of Zemekis’s A Christmas Carol and his even worse Polar Express adaptations cannot be overlooked when Cameron gives us such a fully realized world that you never once don’t believe that what you’re looking at is real, at least as far as the world of Pandora is concerned.
The cast does their best with what they’re given and it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver back in action quickly bringing to mind her turn as Ripley in the Alien series. Sam Worthington is given far more to do here than when we last saw him in another Cameron-related film, Terminator Salvation, where he was reduced to little more than the robot his character was.
Zoe Saldana improves on her fantastic debut in this past summer’s mega-hit, Star Trek, as Uhura. Bringing a huge sense of sexiness and danger as a fully computer-generated character shows just how far an actress can go in so little time. When we next see her kicking butt and taking names in next spring’s The Losers, I can only imagine how great she will be when she’s given a full action-oriented character.
This is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen, exactly where James Cameron intended it to be seen. If you feel you must see it on your local IMAX screen then you may wind up shortchanging yourself as it was not filmed for IMAX so there’s no way it can look as spectacular as it does through digital projection.
Who knows if it will wind up being the biggest blockbuster of the year but so far it’s definitely on track to being at least one of them. While some over-sized, testicled, racist robots will probably come out on top, it’s nice to see a far better film come along to give it a run for its money. Welcome back, Cameron, your throne awaits its king’s return.
Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox