by Scott Mendelson
I don't know if Avatar is a 'game-changer'. I don't know if Avatar cost $300 million or $500 million. I don't know if it will come anywhere close to Titanic's box-office totals or Oscar glories. Frankly, I don't care about any of those things. I do know that Avatar is a wonderful big-screen entertainment. It uses astounding visual effects tools to tell a most old-fashioned story and tells it very well. It is eye-poppingly gorgeous, jaw-droppingly exciting, and sharply acted. It is a soaring adventure story that is remarkable in its construction. Most impressively, it actually lives up to the hype and delivers on everything that James Cameron has been promising us for the last few years. The first thing that crossed my mind as the film ended was simply 'Wow, the crazy son of a bitch did it!'.
A token amount of plot: Following the death of his twin brother, wheelchair-bound marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is offered a chance to take his brother's place in a science project on the far-away world of Pandora. The Earth has run out of resources and a precious metal located in the heart of this new world could bring salvation to humanity. A private corporation has been put in charge of mining unobtainium, and company man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is growing impatient. With the indigenous Na'vi tribes reluctant to help, an 'avatar' program is set up to allow humans to remotely put their minds into a created Na'vi body. It is up to Jake to bond with the natives and win their trust, hoping to prevent the trigger happy Colonel Quaritich (Stephen Lang) from committing genocide and launching open-war against the locals. But matters are complicated when Jake falls for fellow Na'vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and he finds himself questioning his own allegiances.
It is no secret that the plot is a mishmash of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, The Battle For Terra, and Ferngully. The film is, at its core, a relatively obvious parable of the European settlers in North America and their subjugation of the Native Americans who were here first. So while the film does not portend to be the most original story ever told, it makes up for it by telling it in high style. What's most impressive is the sheer restraint that Cameron displays for the first two acts. We are slowly introduced to the fantastic new world and its inhabitants, and the film takes its time establishing plot and character. By not jumping headlong into spectacle, the film allows us to become used to each fantastical element before introducing more, helping to sell the illusion. The film also holds back on action. While there are several sequences of adventure in the first two acts, Cameron holds back most of the violence for the final third. But it's absolutely worth the wait, as the finale is the finest large-scale action sequence since the battles of Minas Tirith and Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. And, like Peter Jackson before him, Cameron keeps just enough recognizable heroes and in the thick of battle so that there is always someone familiar to cut to during the melee.
Using motion-capture technology, Cameron elicits compelling dramatic performances from his countless Na'vi. In particular, Zoe Saldana delivers the best work of her career as the fierce and emotional warrior princess. In her own character-specific way, she's every bit as bad-ass as Ellen Ripley or Sarah Conner. If it wasn't under the burden of being motion-capture, she might be up for Oscar talk after this weekend. Sam Worthington also shines, both in human and Na'vi form. The humans deliver as well. Sigourney Weaver offers gruff support as an empathetic studier of the native population. Stephen Lang's bloodthirsty military leader makes a credible hiss-worthy villain, and his comment that the Na'vi are 'very hard to kill' becomes hilariously ironic in the finale. Most interesting is Ribsi's subtle character work as his seemingly heartless corporate overlord slowly realizes what he's agreed to oversee. While he doesn't have a major arc, he is given just a few moments of remorse and regret to make him more than just a cartoon goon.
Granted, most people aren't seeing Avatar for the acting and story, so let's discuss the effects work. Whatever issues you had with the trailers or the footage that was released online, forget them. The 3D work is truly immersive, creating the kind of 'you are there' effect that was before only achieved in cartoons like Coraline and The Polar Express. But the 3D effects rarely call attention to themselves so they rarely take you out of the movie. As for the extensive motion capture work and creature-effects, they are as realistic as possible. Everything looks either absolutely real or as real as they can be in this fantasy environment. The blend of seemingly real-world locations and fantastical elements is absolutely seamless. Even when you shouldn't, you'll believe your eyes for most of the 160-minute running time.
Despite some minor quibbles, including some truly needless voice over work throughout the movie (the kind that explicitly details plot and character development that we can plainly see for ourselves), Avatar is a stunning success. It is a staggering achievement in visual effects and 3D technology. More importantly, it is a well-acted drama and a rousing action-adventure picture. It absolutely demands to be seen on the biggest and best screen available. See it in 3D, see it in IMAX 3D. Heck, see it a second time in 2D (the aspect ratio is 2.35:1 for 2D and Real3D and 1.87:1 for IMAX 3D prints). Point being, the self-appointed king of the world is back, and he may just reclaim his crown. Avatar absolutely delivers.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson