In 1977 George Lucas released the very first Star Wars film and it completely and irrevocably changed the landscape of not only genre films, but of cinema in general. Many other reviewers are going to compare the impact of James Cameron’s Avatar to that of Lucas’ masterpiece and with good reason. However, there is a subtle difference. Lucas had an idea that needed new technologies and techniques to be invented in order for it to be realized, so he created the equipment necessary to do so. Cameron takes that to a whole new level. Not only do his ideas require equipment that hasn’t been invented yet, but the tools he envisions needing usually require basic parts that haven’t even been thought of yet, except in Cameron’s dreams. This fact is born out in the creator having to wait over a decade for technology to reach the point where he could invent the tools he needed in order to make the film. Yes, Cameron may use an obscene amount of money to make his films, but that is because he is a pioneer. He doesn’t adapt what others have done, he instead creates it whole-cloth and others later build upon that.
But don’t think that the only substance here is spectacular special effects as there is a great story at the film’s core. Of course, Cameron returns to some of his recurring themes, such as reconciling nature with advanced technology (in this case they don’t), blind military leadership and corporate greed as evil and there are very strong female characters present throughout with a strong romance subplot threaded present. The writer/director refined his use of romance on Titanic and uses it very organically here in his first fiction film of the twenty-first century.
Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, our reluctant hero and former marine, who begins the film taking the place of his deceased twin brother in the Avatar program. The paraplegic Sully arrives on the lush moon Pandora and is initially greeted by the Human base’s security officer Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Sully is introduced to the team he will be working with, biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The Humans are on Pandora to mine a valuable mineral in order to resolve a crisis on Earth and are opposed by the moon’s sentient humanoid life-forms, the three meter tall, blue skinned race called the Na’vi. The Na’vi are considered primitive savages and an impediment by the Human military and attempts to bring them sophisticated medicines and knowledge have met with minimal results. Since humans are unable to breathe the air on Pandora, they have created genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrids known as Avatars to more effectively interact with the natives. Each Avatar is genetically coded with the Human who will be utilizing it, hence Sully’s recruitment to replace his twin, who has been well-trained in Na’vi language and customs. Augustine at first clashes with the newbie to her program, but eventually begins to mentor him.
Sully, in Avatar form, meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and her people and, at the urging of Quaritch, integrates himself into their society in order to relay tactical information back to the military to be used to drive the Na’vi away from the largest deposit of the precious mineral (humorously called “unobtainium”). But Sully’s experiences amongst the Na’vi, particualry his growing affection for Neytiri, begin to change him in ways he never imagined and slowly he begins to side with Augustine in realizing that the Na’vi should be spared Man’s inhumanity and should be left alone. Eventually, things escalate and the Humans take sides, with the scientists joining with the Na’vi against a military bent on destroying the natives and their harmonious balance with nature.
So, here’s the thing: I completely and totally love James Cameron’s Avatar. My immediate reaction at the end of the film was that I don’t think I will be able to watch another science-fiction film for a very long time. I saw it in IMAX and Real3D and the experience was so incredibly immersive that watching a regular 2D film now feels flat and lifeless. Basically, you feel like you are right in the room/jungle with the characters and are in on the conversations as opposed to watching a record of events. I hope all of Cameron’s films from now on are made this way and that other filmmakers jump on board. Beyond that, though, Cameron has created the first truly complete alien world, right down to the eco-system and how the entire animal and plant kingdoms interact with each other. It truly is a breathtaking wonder to behold. And the motion-capture technique used to create the Na’vi and Avatars is truly astonishing. The CG aliens move with subtle grace and have believable mouth and facial movements. All the actors are at their best here as they give exceptional performances. Sam Worthington is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors and Sigourney Weaver is always enjoyable to watch. Also, I don’t normally care for Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez, but both do a great job and are perfect for their respective roles. Hands down, James Cameron’s Avatar gets my vote for film of the year and it may just be one of the greatest films ever made. It certainly is a cinematic achievement of the grandest scale and has raised the bar on filmmaking to a very lofty height. Now let’s see who rises to the challenge.
James Cameron’s Avatar is one of the most fully realized science-fiction films ever made. James Cameron’s Avatar is one of the most sweepingly epic fantasy films ever made. These two statements are not contradictory. Cameron seems to have made a film that, intentionally or not, makes a statement on science-fiction films versus fantasy films. True, on the surface James Cameron’s Avatar seems to be blatantly pro-enviromentalism and an allegory on how we are treating our own planet. However, there seems to be an allusion to science-fiction stories having to follow strict rules and being a slave to technology versus the creative freedom of a fantasy world that can play loose with science and seems more serene and peaceful. Clash of the genres or am I just thinking too much about the film? By the way, including “James Cameron’s” before the title of the film is in no way meant to pass a judgment of pretentiousness on Cameron, but the distinction demands to be made as the film is completely, wholly and totally James Cameron’s. And that is a very, very good thing.