Along with the buzz, speculation had been growing for months over the big question: could James Cameron pull it off? The underwhelming trailers presented audiences with a Fern Gully-esque story full of 10-foot tall Smurfs - and the special effects, touted as revolutionary, looked questionable at best. Was this really the epic James Cameron was marking his return to the big screen with? Now that Avatar is out, this statement rings true: never, ever, underestimate James Cameron.
James Cameron is responsible for many of the best sci-fi action movies ever made. Terminator. Aliens. The Abyss. Terminator 2. He's also responsible for True Lies, Strange Days and the Oscar-hording Titanic. Other than Piranha Part Two: The Spawning way back in 1981, this man has not made a bad movie in over 30 years.
Avatar is, simply, incredible. Its story, as many critics have pointed out, is the weakest aspect of the film; the plot is simple and has been done before. Most of the characters aren't as developed as we've seen in other Cameron movies, and he does cater to some clichés here and there. But the story is still more than good enough, as are the characters, to support the overall experience of the film, which can only be described as breathtaking.
3D has become popular over the last year or so, to the point where the coolness factor has already begun to wane. But James Cameron promised to revolutionize 3D and special effects in general with this movie, and, folks, he did. The trailers don't do the movie justice. Avatar has the greatest special effects ever made. It makes Transformers look like a cartoon. It makes Gollum in The Lord of the Rings look like a Muppet. It puts to shame all movies that have come before it. The visual effects are so detailed and fluid that it's impossible to tell what is real and what is not. The Na'vi - the giant Smurfs - look so real that they could be; the other alien species in the film are equally excellent.
Avatar is, first and foremost, about the relationship between a human (Sam Worthington) and a Na'vi princess warrior named Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana, who, after her steamy role in Star Trek, has supplanted Princess Leia as this generation's sci-fi goddess). To pull this off, the special effects had to be top notch, and they are. Not only is Neytiri smoking hot (there, I said it), but the characters' movement - notably their mouths and eyes - look incredibly real, which has been the problem in past attempts at movies like this. Take note, Robert Zemeckis: you've done three movies like this and failed miserably, while James Cameron succeeded in just one.
Beyond the special effects (did I mention they were great?), the story is compelling and generally engaging. The basic plot is this: humans have traveled to a far-away world called Pandora, where they wish to mine a substance that is worth billions of dollars back home. Unfortunately, the biggest deposit of this mineral is located directly below the "Hometree" of a Na'vi clan. They send in a group of avatars (humans electronically hooked up to Na'vi variations of themselves) to infiltrate the clan and attempt to talk them into moving before the Company gets anxious and decides to move them by force. Inevitably, the humans get impatient and decide to blow everything to smithereens, forcing the Na'vi to fight back.
There's nothing fantastic about that plot, but it works well enough. What makes the movie so good is that the relationship between Jake Sully (Worthington) and Neytiri is compelling and surprisingly natural. The progression of their relationship, from annoyance to love, is seamless, and surrounded by the gorgeous and imaginative settings, completely engaging. Worthington, who I faulted for being a distraction in this year's Terminator: Salvation (though he was hardly the biggest problem with that disaster), is surprisingly good; he brings a heartfelt swagger to the role. Saldana counters him at every turn, their chemistry undeniable. Signourey Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez are both pretty good, though not memorable.
Avatar is not without its faults. At two-and-a-half hours, it does drag in a few parts; it's never slow, but it takes a very long time to get to the big showdown at the end. Cameron gets a little carried away in showing off the visuals at a few points when he could have been tightening the story. For such a long movie, the supporting characters aren't given much room to be fleshed out; a little more meat behind Rodriguez's character, for instance, would have gone a long way. Most glaring is the performance by Stephen Lang, a delicious but scene-chomping job that includes just about every military cliché ever put to film. He's easy to hate - which is the intent - but he's so testosterone-filled it's hard to see him as a real person. Again, giving his character more depth would have benefited the movie.
Still, even with its flaws, Avatar is a movie that needs to be seen in theaters. The visual effects are incredible, the movie mesmerizing, and the action, once James Cameron gets around to it, is exciting. Avatar is by no means better than Cameron's other masterpieces, but it is a worthy addition to his resume. Go see Avatar today, preferably on IMAX and in 3D.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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