AVATAR – movie review
Posted: Sat, Dec 19 2009 - 15:36 PM
It takes some mighty big balls to stand before tens of millions of television viewers, raise your Oscar-filled hands, and exclaim “I'm the King of the World!” James Cameron was quoting Titanic – the film for which he had just won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards – but still, no one has ever accused this man of overt humility. Yet after Titanic went on to earn $1.8 billion in global box office, perhaps the visionary filmmaker had earned the right to such a claim. His previous films, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and True Lies were all eye-popping, audience-pleasing, envelope-pushing, genre-defying blockbusters, each of which helped prepare him to make that little boat movie. So how does one top the most successful film of all time?
If you are James Cameron, and your visions are beyond what current effects-work can handle, you spend the next 12 years creating the technology to tell the story you want to tell. That story, written 15 years ago, would be called Avatar. Though it took much longer to bring to fruition than Cameron intended, the director's claims during this time that Avatar would “change movie making as we know it" were as dubious as they were warranted. Cameron's films have always changed movies as we previously knew them: Terminator's metal man, Alien's loader vs alien queen finale, The Abyss' water tentacle, T2's liquid metal man, True Lies' Harrier jet climax, and damn near everything in Titanic. Whether you love or hate him, The King of the World's films have invariably shown us things we've never seen before.
So does Avatar live up to not only Cameron's previous work, but his own effusive claims that this film is a “game changer”?
Yes, it does, and yes, it is.
While I could easily write a 3000 word review here by spelling out in detail every little spoiler I can think of, this is one film that really needs to be discovered by its audience. I'll try not to give away anything that hasn't already been shown in the trailer.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-marine, called in by the military to take over a project on which his recently deceased twin brother had been working. After spending a few years in cryo-freeze, Jake and a crew of soldiers and scientists arrive at the planet moon of Pandora. It seems this ecological wonder, whose air is poisonous to humans, is rich in a substance called Unobtainium (... while some have rolled their eyes at this term, “unobtainium” is actually a word used by scientists since the 1950s to describe any mineral whose excavation is either difficult or impossible). Yet, wouldn't you know it, the richest deposit of this gravity-defying material is directly under an encampment of Pandora natives called the Na'vi. These locals are 10 foot tall creatures with blue skin, huge yellow eyes, three-fingered hands, and swishing tails – they are as intelligent as they are savage. Jake's mission is to have his consciousness projected into this genetically-identical avatar – a human/Na'vi hybrid body grown in a tank – and to infiltrate the Na'vi camp in order to convince them to relocate. If this cannot be done peacefully, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is more than prepared to take what he wants by force. Once Jake is accepted by the Na'vi, he quickly falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana - Star Trek's Uhura), and their affair is interrupted only by a stampeding herd of tatonka ... Kidding.
What Avatar lacks in originality story-wise, it more than makes up for in presentation. Yes, we have seen similar tales told many times before – Dances with Wolves, Dune, and John Carter of Mars come to mind – but Cameron has never been accused of storytelling originality. (Just ask Harlan Ellison, who sued Cameron for “borrowing” elements of two Outer Limits episodes for The Terminator. The case was settled out of court, and Ellison got a few hundred thousand dollars and an on-screen credit.) But let's be honest here – as some have posited, there are only twelve stories in the world, and each generation puts a different spin on them. It's the way Cameron spins these tales that makes them so special.
Avatar IS special. In fact, I've never seen a film quite like it. There has never been an alien world so fully realized on-screen – from the insects and animals, to the natives and landscapes, Cameron creates an entire eco-structure, complete with food chain, that is utterly fascinating and breathtakingly beautiful. Especially in IMAX 3D. (Yes, this was the clearest 3D I have ever seen – a constant depth of field that draws you in, and a giant technological leap forward.) There is no way for me to describe here in words what Avatar does with pictures, but maybe that is the point. The special effects in this film are SO incredibly real, that for much of the film it is easy to miss them. From the Na'vi, whose eyes are alive like no other CGI creation before, to the alien landscapes which are seen from every angle imaginable (never more thrilling than when one is learning to “break” a dragon), to Jake Sully's wasted legs, no film has ever paid so much attention to little details.
It is also great to see Sigourney Weaver back in her first James Cameron film since 1986's Aliens – she plays Dr. Grace Augustine, who heads up the avatar program. She joins Jake on Pandora in her own Na'vi body, and it is pretty cool how these avatars resemble their human counterparts. Grace looks not unlike a giant blue version of Ripley from 1979's first Alien film – now that's a face lift.
Cameron has said that Avatar was inspired by “every science fiction book I read as a kid,” but he also borrows liberally from himself with this film – elements of Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic are evident – particularly the love story from the latter which ultimately sells this story. If Jake and Neytiri's romance didn't work, the entire film would fall apart, despite its powerful digital glue. But work it does – not an easy task when the lovers are blue and tailed. Only the power ballad over the final credits seemed a little too derivative of that little boat movie.
In fine, Avatar is spectacularly entertaining, sumptuously designed and, insofar as the rest of Hollywood is going to have to scramble pretty damn hard to match this detailed beauty of this film, it could also be considered a game changer.
I can't wait to see it again.
MOVIE GRADE: A
Category: Movie Reviews