Dances with Na’vi. Pocahontas in Space. The Smurfy New World.
Now that we have the derisive comparisons of “Avatar” out of the way (guess we can throw “Delgo” and “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” in there, too), we can review the actual movie James Cameron spent the past 15 years of his life trying to bring to the screen.
Calling it a movie isn’t quite accurate. “Avatar” is a massive, overwhelming audio/visual spectacle. It is truly an immersive experience that takes moviegoing into uncharted territory. One that manages to awe you with its technical achievement, while at the same time make you shake your head at the simplistic failings of the script. An environmental message wrapped inside the pulpy stylings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story has many of the same elements – corporate greed, colonization, forbidden love - Cameron has been playing with throughout his career.
Game-changer? On a technical level, absolutely it is. The use of 3D in “Avatar” is phenomenal, so good in fact, that you stop noticing it a few minutes in once you get used to all the detail flooding your eyes. Cameron had so much faith in the technological breakthrough he delivers here, there isn’t a single 3D parlor trick. No arrows are flung at the audience; no creatures jump at the screen. The big difference with seeing the film in 3D is the sheer depth. The clarity of the mountains off in the distance, or the trees in the background, is incredible.
The laboratory scenes, surprisingly, show off Cameron’s groundbreaking technology even better than the large-scale action sequences. As characters come in and out of the camera’s view, computer screens flicker in the corner, and it’s all crystal-clear.
The story is equally transparent. In the year 2154, Earth is in the midst of a major energy crisis. As a result, they’ve discovered a distant planet, Pandora, which happens to have an ultra-valuable mineral with the silly name of unobtanium.
That natural resource happens to lie directly below the sacred Hometree of the native Na’vi people. They’re not very happy to have intruders treading on their turf, as one could imagine.
Sigourney Weaver plays the doctor who created the Avatar program as a way around the fact that humans can’t breathe Pandora’s toxic air. Using a mix of Na’vi and human DNA, they have bio-engineered duplicates of the native creatures that are controlled, or ‘driven’, by humans.
With relations between the humans and the locals rapidly deteriorating, a plan is hatched to send a paraplegic Marine, Jake (Sam Worthington) – via his Avatar -- to infiltrate the Na’vi, learn their weaknesses and help lead them to the unobtanium.
At first, Jake plays the good soldier role to the utmost. Happy to have his legs back even in just a virtual sense, he reports back to his superiors all that learns. But as he begins to fall for the Na’vi female Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and learn more about the ways of her people, he begins to second-guess his mission. Like a cop who’s gone too deep into his cover, he can’t tell what’s right or wrong.
All of this is by-the-numbers obvious, from the romance to Jake’s crisis of loyalty. But unlike in “Terminator Salvation,” where he didn’t seem to have a good grasp of his character, Worthington here shows the ‘tough guy with a soft side’ that keeps landing him high-profile roles. As he documents his travels with the Na’vi on video logs, Jake’s uncertainty over which side of the battle he should be on begins to show. Worthington conveys this in convincing fashion.
Saldana is even more impressive, considering the entirety of her performance is delivered via the emotion-capture process where live-action performance is enhanced with CGI.
It’s a tribute to Cameron’s skills as a director that the romance between these two computerized characters is the picture’s high-water mark. Much like the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” Worthington and Saldana have sparks that overcome the sometimes-shallow dialogue and deliver an all-CGI love story for the ages.
Weaver doesn’t fare quite as well, though not really through any fault of her own. Her crusty, chain-smoking scientist starts off strong as an independent thinker. But it seems as if her role was diminished in the edit room, and it made for an inconsistent character.
Other characters are riffed directly from another Cameron movie, “Aliens.” Stephen Lang plays his gung-ho Col. Quaritch as a cartoonishly evil corporate muscle. Michelle Rodriguez, perhaps seeking redemption for her unsatisfying role on “LOST,” doesn’t find it here as the sympathetic pilot. And Giovanni Ribisi, who seemed to really be enjoying himself, obviously studied Paul Reiser for tips on soulless corporate stoogery.
[There is also another “Aliens” homage that comes late in the film that will be immediately obvious to anyone who’s seen that 1986 classic.]
The real stars of this extravaganza are the all-CGI, 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned Na’vi. These fully computerized creatures display an emotion that may not translate as well when seen out of context, such as in the Comic-Con presentation or even the film’s trailers. But seeing the movie, unlike with so many other CGI characters, you forget they were born in a hard drive.
By the time the climactic battle scene arrives, you are fully engaged. Cameron may have his limits as a screenwriter, but as a filmmaker, few come close to his uncanny ability to draw the audience in and never let them go.
As the Na’vi rally to stand up to the human intruders, you find yourself cheering for them to win. There is no doubt who the good guys and bad guys are here.
The big action sequence at the end, incidentally, is a work of technical marvel. The contrast between the Na’vi and their bow-and-arrows and their winged creatures with the humans’ powerful airships, is striking. The entire sequence lasts nearly the film’s entire final half-hour, and is what Cameron builds the entire movie to. While the movie doesn’t lack for action, it’s more deliberate than one might expect. Nevertheless, the finale more than delivers in thrills and visual impressiveness.
In his review of “Avatar,” Roger Ebert said watching the film made him feel the same way he did when he saw “Star Wars” in 1977. “Jurassic Park” may be a more apt comparison.
When the ikran – the flying banshees the Na’vi bond with during their rite of passage – soar through the skies, it’s breathtaking, the same way those first glimpses of the dinosaurs were in “Jurassic Park.” Cameron is smart enough to give you plenty of opportunities to be awestruck by the world he’s created. Considering the film cost anywhere between $350-$500 million, why not show it off a bit?
But like Spielberg’s movie, the technical wizardry outstrips the characters that inhabit the world. Say what you will about George Lucas’ writing skills, but the characters in “Star Wars” were ultimately the drawing card. No one’s going to say that about “Avatar.”
The film’s Achilles Heel is its stock characterizations and a story that will seem very familiar. Ironic, isn’t it, that the biggest weakness of the movie that redefines 3D moviemaking is a one-dimensional script?
Those shortcomings aren’t enough to undermine what Cameron has done here. “Avatar” is epic science fiction with moments of incredible power. Sitting there in the theater with the 3D glasses on (and it would be a crime to experience this in any fashion other than in digital 3D), you will catch yourself numerous times, shaking your head in amazement at what you’re experiencing.