Avatar is quite possibly, the most anticipated film in the last decade. It is what James Cameron has been working on for the better part of that decade and his first fictional film since the Oscar-winning Titanic in 1997.
Cameron has a great pedigree in film and science fiction, boasting some of the most well received films of the genre by both critics and larger audiences: The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens and one the favorite films of both my wife and myself: The Abyss. Both Terminator 2 and The Abyss helped to take special effects to another level in film making – the T-1000 in T2 and the water creatures in The Abyss. So to say expectations are high on this film is an understatement.
The story is one that may be quite familiar – an ambitious military man is told to invade the enemy to gain intel about their society and their faith so his superiors can gain a better foothold in conquering them, but who is then so taken with the enemies he joins their side instead once he falls in love with a woman of this enemy ‘tribe’ and their way of life. The native tribe, in this case, is the 14-foot tall Na’Vi who inhabit the planet Pandora. The Na’Vi are strong, agile, large and their bones are much more strong and dense than a human’s bones. The military man is Jake Sully, who is tasked by Colonel Miles Quaritch to get the Na’Vi to leave Hometree (the Na’Vi’s enormous living home), which sits above a large cache of unobtanium, a spectacularly valuable mineral that could make the RDA corporation extremely rich. Zoë Saldaña plays Neytiri a Na’Vi princess who takes Jake into the tribe once he is revealed to be some kind of unique, nigh-saviour figure. Quaritch eventually attacks Hometree before Jake can convince the Na’Vi to leave and a war between human and Na’Vi erupts.
While I never saw Dances with Wolves or Ferngully the two movies many (perhaps jokingly) compare to the story in Avatar, it was difficult not find elements in the film that seem to have been lifted from other movies or books. The bonding with banshee creatures (horse-sized creatures similar to dragons) was very reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. The super-armor the marines wore was reminiscent of both the robotic assistant Sigourney Weaver wore in Aliens as well as the armor of a Warhammer Space Marine. This is just a smattering of the similarities.
Despite the predictability, Cameron is able to tell this story convincingly enough to keep the emotional investment strong throughout the majority of the film. Sam Worthington as Jake Sully does an acceptable job; Zoë Saldaña as his love interest is terrific; Sigourney Weaver is very good as Dr. Augustine, the authority on Na’Vi and her role here (perhaps intentionally) echoes similar themes to her role as Diane Fossey; Giovanni Ribisi is also fine as the corporate punk who wants the unobtainium, and is reminiscent of Paul Reiser’s corporate scum character in Aliens. The stand-out performance; however, is Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch, the Bad Ass villain of the film. Lang was very good as the despicable Ike Clanton in Tombstone, but here he chews up the scenery quite nicely. He exudes strong will and Bad-Assery.
The color palette and CGI effects were, in a word, mindblowing. The creatures, the Na’Vi themselves, and the floating mountains were a seamless element of the film. I didn’t once find myself thinking the Na’Vi were computer generated, the facial expressions, the body movements, and perhaps most importantly the eyes were remarkably rendered. It was only when the Na’Vi were standing next to humans did their alien-ness come to the fore, but that is likely only because they are 14-feet tall. Much like Gollum was able to seamlessly interact with the Hobbits, (and the Hobbits themselves as 3-foot tall humanoids) in the Lord of the Rings films, so do the Na’Vi seem as other actors on the proverbial stage.
I’ve already mentioned the predictability of the story as a drawback. The other drawback was actually seeing the film in 3D. Many people have told me the best way to see this film is in 3D. I have to disagree. While it wasn’t a distraction entirely, both my wife and I found that my eyes were straining to see through the glasses and my sense of awareness was later distorted after the film. My wife and I also both concluded how spoiled we are by HD Television. This was confirmed by seeing a trailer for the film on HD NET when we got back home and realizing how much more crisp and beautiful the dragon-creatures looked in HD compared to the 3D film.
This is a must see film and a doorway into the future of filmmaking. Cameron laid some good groundwork on this one and could build impressively with the supposedly planned sequel.