Walking into the theater to see a movie that was 14 years in the making, one has to ask, “how big is the hype on this?” and further, “how disappointed will I be if this isn’t anything great?” Well the good news is that this film definitely does well by my standards and gets my vote for one of the best movies of the decade. Cameron continues to push the boundaries of existing technology, create his own if what’s available is insufficient to materialize his dreams and finally resets the bar with every effort. I wasn’t a raving fanboy awaiting the “Final Coming of Cameron” but I was still pretty excited to see this. Was it awesome? YES. Was I disappointed? NO
PREMISE: The story of Avatar follows Marine Jake Sulley, who after the recent death of his twin brother, is presented the option of helping continue his brother’s experiments on planet Pandora. Jake has no scientific background but since he has the same DNA as his brother he is able to participate in the AVATAR program taking place on the planet. With the control of his brother’s Avatar, he is given the task of attempting to make contact with the Na’vi (the native species on Pandora) to gain their trust. In doing so the hope is that he can diplomatically convince them to allow the huge mining corporation to have access to vast majority of the sought after metal beneath the surface of their dwelling. Jake, being without the use of his legs since a battle injury, finds more comfort behind the wheel of his Avatar than in the limitations of his wheelchair and becomes more and more enamored with and partial to the Na’vi culture. Finding such freedom, comfort and acceptance in their world, Jake takes a stand with the Na’vi when the mining corporation (and their impatient military presence) attempt to take the metal reserves with deadly force.
HIGHS: For something that took this long to ever see the light of day, this film is deeply intricate in almost every way possible. The visuals just wouldn’t quit, the depth of mythology on planet Pandora was astounding, the story (which did have its weak points) was pretty sound, and the action (being it was a Cameron vehicle) was simply exceptional. Many people probably would rank the gobs and gobs of eye candy as the best part of the film and while I don’t disagree, I don’t 100% agree either. What I found extremely fascinating were the layers and layers of thought that went into first creating and then explaining the Na’vi culture. Cameron and his crew concocted a believable world and it was evident in the flora and fauna of Pandora, the mannerisms of the Na’vi, their lifestyle and even down to their rites of passage. For a film impossibly far beyond the technology and capabilities of our own culture and the events there-in, this film contained quite a lot of themes that I think many people could relate with and many elements came off as believable. Now I don’t mean that I believe in the possibility of a true Avatar program but what I’m saying is that if you take the time to tell the story and lay things out, it is easy to get on board and follow. If you are just shown something and have it forced down your throat for 90 minutes without plausible exposition you’re more than likely going to balk at things that will keep you from buying into the story.
But in regards to the eye candy, I truly could not tell the difference between CGI and real life actors/effects. You watch a something like the Star Wars prequels and almost cringe at the level of CGI and how it feels cold, and you can easily spot the digital effects. Even in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy there were tell-tale signs of CGI which didn’t totally blend and stood out just a hair. In Avatar, Cameron blurred the lines so damn well that I found it impossible to discern what was make-up and what was CGI when there were close-ups on some characters. I further found myself wondering if this was a film about the future, actually sent back from the future. OK, bit of a stretch but when the camera was zoomed in on the Jake, or Neytiri, the light, the texture of their skin and things as small as facial twitches were so unbelievably real. One scene in particular is where Jake is being painted for a ritual and I was just floored at how real it all seemed. Usually you can tell what is a digital effect (i.e. all the transparent computer monitors/HUD screens) but the interaction between the humans and Na’vi was just amazing. Also, I guess seeing the film on IMAX and in 3D gave more interest and delight in the visuals bringing my appreciation level exceptionally high.
Now if you ask 100 people to use one word to describe Cameron, most people you ask (I assume) will say “action”. True, his films are replete with action, but Cameron is smart enough to realize that you can’t have style without substance. His films are very involving and all the explosions in the world won’t get you invested in a film if you could care less about the story or the characters. This film, for its exercises in technology, future studies and epic story telling has quite a bit of heart behind what some might call a brainless CGI wonderland. The action scenes were top notch and I found that some of the vehicles seemed to resemble or pay homage to his vehicles in his other movies, namely the “HKs” from The Termiantor and the “load lifter” from Aliens. Great thing to note about Cameron (among his already packed list of praises and achievements) is that when other filmmakers or screenwriters would run out of ways to continue the story or push the plot any further, Cameron just throttles the story on without seeming tired, thin or gratuitous. Just when you think something is at its climax, he gives you another 25 minutes of full on action and few do it a s good as him. This also seems to hark back to Aliens and it made me smile. And FYI, after smiling for 162 minutes, your face kind of hurts:P
LOWS: Now I don’t know if this is just a personal stigma or what, but something kept nagging at me while watching this film. I, for the life of me, could not stop thinking of other movies in which Avatar’s plot bore more than passing resemblance. People referred to this film as “Ferngully with a half a billion dollar budget“. Admittedly, it was striking how some elements did play to that opinion. Also, I found, at times this was incredibly close to the plot of Disney’s Atlantis but in a movie that is nearly 3 hours long, coincidences and the like seemed to fall by the wayside in light of a much broader, grander story than the two in question. Once I got past that I was OK with it. Yet somethings just seemed to be thrown in and compared to the level of detail in the rest of the movie, many elements seemed thin.
For instance, how exactly was Jake’s brother killed? They made it seem like it was a mugging that went wrong. But think about it. What kind of unsavory places would someone with a PhD be frequenting when all of his other colleagues looked like they never left the lab? Also, as part of the diplomacy (by scientists, who certainly know a lot about politics) to gain trust with the Na’vi, how did they think the “school” would benefit the Na’vi in the first place? Further, what made them close it down? Seems like that’s some missing back story that might be of use. Also the choice for the name of the metal they wanted to mine might have been a little too smart for most audiences…see here for a useful bit of information on why they call it “Unobtanium”. They probably should have just made a fictitious name for it, since it can’t really be “unobtained” if they have a sample, and that one issue there might sway some viewers as it is a pretty big plot device. Next, was it worth stating that the Na’vi are fond of bows and arrows? Since they’re a native jungle dwelling species, it kind of goes without saying. Worse yet is when they mention that they dip the ends of the arrows in a neurotoxin to kill their prey in less than a minute. OK, that’s useful if you know they use it to hunt for food. But if they shoot a human with said arrow (which is nearly 5 feet long and roughly the diameter of a Red Bull can), does it matter if it was dipped in a toxin? Didn’t think so. Finally, someone tell me how is that floating mountains can have waterfalls…
Also, one thing I might count on as a low but was not as off-putting as I once imagined was the score. James Horner is a very popular and gifted film score composer, almost as great (to me) as John Willimas, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard and Alan Silvestri, yet I kind of have a love/hate opinion on his works. As awe-inspiring and moving as his scores can be (The Rocketeer being his finest in my opinion) he is repetitious to a point of infuriation. Willow, The Land Before Time, The Mask of Zorro, Enemy at the Gates, Apollo 13, Apocolypto, are all great but they all sound the same. His work may add great emotion to a film but his overuse of the same themes he has used in countless other films is almost uninspiring. Horner came very close to some of his old (possibly trademark) riffs and themes. In the end he did create something new entirely for this film. Most of the music felt and sounded very ambient, electronic at times and most decidedly “new age”, like something you’d hear on the radio program Hearts of Space. To his credit, he gave this film something new but still he didn’t entirely break free of his old tricks and that kind of took me out of the film because it felt recycled.
RULING: With a level of wonderment I don’t think I’ve felt since seeing Jurassic Park when I was 13, Avatar truly redefines action, sci-fi and pretty much film in general. His level of involvement in every one of his features is so deep from conceptual design, to production development to the fact that he’s credited as an A.C.E. editor just shows his commitment to his projects. Cameron is a master storyteller and I think he is one supremely talented individual. His films have the perfect combination of human emotion, an extremely interesting story and dazzling effects which are all tied together with the right amount of make-believe.
Now I must admit that seeing it on IMAX in 3D may have added more to my viewing than others may have experienced. Some might claim this was an attempt for Cameron to show off his new technological toys but with a story as good as it was, the visuals share the stage with an assembly of other elements which make this movie great. Now this movie was truly a once in a lifetime experience in my opinion. Not the greatest movie ever and it did have some drawbacks, however the overall feeling I left with after being saturated by the visuals and story for almost 3 hours just left me in a daze of excitement and awe.
Sadly (very sadly actually) nothing will ever be able to replicate this feeling again. Case in point, I purchased Inglourious Basterds because of how great it was in the theater, yet my Blu Ray player and big screen LCD TV didn’t capture what I felt in that dark auditorium. I similarly bought The Dark Knight and compared to the IMAX screen I saw it on, it paled in comparison. I can only imagine how insignificant Avatar will seem should I buy in on Blu Ray. It’s with that said that I’ll probably never see it again because nothing will ever compare to this viewing. To that, funny enough, I say “Thank You James Cameron” for delivering something so much larger than life that truly, in every extent of the word, is an experience.
G-S-T Ruling – 4/5
G-S-T Seal of Approval: GRANTED