You may have heard of James Cameron’s new film, a little movie called Avatar. Cameron and others have hyped the film to no end, claiming that it will change cinema as we know it (and for $250 million, it had better!). Avatar features all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from James Cameron: great action set pieces, amazing effects, evil corporations and cool creatures. Despite its many shortcomings, Avatar is impressive as sheer spectacle and a genuinely exciting experience
In 2154, Earth is overpopulated and starved for resources. Mankind is beginning to explore the galaxy, and discovers the resource-rich planet Pandora. SecFor, a military-industrial conglomerate has setup shop on Pandora, eager to exploit its natural resources. There is just one problem: the Na’vi, 12-foot-tall, blue feline–humanoids and the natives of Pandora, don’t take kindly to outsiders. The Na’vi are a tribal society who seek to live in harmony with their planet, but as the humans continue to encroach on Pandora the age old conflict between nature and technology comes to a head.
Enter former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. After the death of his identical twin, Jake is offered a chance to take his brother’s place in the experimental Avatar program. SecFor has created human-Na’vi hybrids called avatars that can be remotely controlled by the person for whom they have been grown. The company hopes to use the avatars to foster better relations with the Na’vi. Shortly after arriving on Pandora, SecFor’s head of security, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) offers to arrange surgery that will allow Jake to walk again, on the condition that Jake uses his avatar to gain the trust of the Na’vi and provide the Colonel with intelligence. Over the course of the next three months Jake becomes a member of the local tribe, goes native, and finds himself torn between his duty to SecFor and his newfound loyalty to the Na’vi.
Avatar’s plot has been done to death. It’s pretty much Dances with Wolves in space. It’s Fern Gully with big-ass mechs. Avatar even shares many thematic similarities with Cameron’s Aliens: humanity expanding its frontiers and coming into conflict with hostile alien forces. At times, the film burdens itself with messages about war and climate change, and it feels like you’re being hit over the head with it. Cameron seems to have a hard time reconciling his eco-friendly, pro-environment message with the fact that he enjoys blowing things up. For every beautiful creature and breathtaking vista, Cameron has a sleek piece of military hardware just around the corner, ready to destroy it.
Speaking of beautiful creatures and breathtaking vistas, it cannot be understated how absolutely gorgeous the film is. Avatar looks like no other movie I’ve seen. Cameron’s attention to the smallest detail makes the film’s universe come alive. Add to that his expert application of the 3D effects and the results are stunning. There are a few of those moments where something flies at the screen apparently to remind you that the film is 3D, but those moments don’t ever feel like too much. The 3D really shines in the scenes where it adds depth and scale to a scene: ships look big, the jungles look dense, and the chasms look deep.
Equally impressive are the computer generated effects in the film. There probably isn’t a single shot in Avatar that wasn’t altered, augmented or otherwise changed using computer graphics. The effects were integrated into the live action scenes flawlessly. Not only are the Na’vi well characterized, but because their performances were motion captured by the actors who played them, the results are far more realistic than you’d expect of computer-generated characters. From the way they move, to the way the light reflects in their eyes, you’ll be convinced the Na’vi were actually filmed and not generated.
Computer generated creatures aren’t the only stars of Avatar, there are some genuine flesh-and-blood actors in the film too. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation, Clash of the Titans) gives a passable, if a little wooden performance as Jake Sully; his Aussie accent comes through on more than one occasion. Jake narrates the film in a series of log entries, and it’s in these quiet moments where Worthington really shines. Zoe Saldaña (Star Trek), who plays Jake’s Na’vi love-interest Neyteri, is a little stiff at times too. I have a feeling that both Worthington and Saldaña may have suffered from Star Wars prequel syndrome; acting against green screens with little or no sets to interact with is challenging for even the best actors.
Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore are both having fun with their supporting roles as part of SecFor’s science team. Stephen Lang’s villainous Colonel Quaritch is worth mention. It’s been a while since we’ve seen such a great hard-ass on screen. The atmosphere on Pandora will kill a human in under a minute, yet Quaritch foregoes an oxygen mask on multiple occassions in order to more quickly deal with a situation. Quaritch is not a villain per se, he’s just a hired gun for SecFor. His job is killing and he’s very good at what he does. When he finally does start taking things personally, he’s terrifying. Stephen Lang is one of the highlights of the film.
Is Avatar the industry redefining film we were promised? Maybe. It seems unlikely to become a classic film and certainly won’t provide the same bang when viewed at home. It’s legacy will most likely be technological one: Avatar has pushed many theatres to add new, powerful 3D setups. Time will tell if 3D is truly the game-changer Cameron claims them to be. The bottom line is that Avatar is worth seeing for the spectacle; this is a film that must be experienced on the big screen. It’s a shame to see the film suffer because the director put so much emphasis on the technology and effects. If only Avatar‘s generic plot had lived up to groundbreaking visuals; at least Cameron got it half right.