Avatar strives not only to reach the levels of those films, but to raise the bar for genre fantasies to come. Years of hype have held Avatar to be a paradigm-shifting, game-changing tipping point that will alter the way we watch movies until the end of recorded time, etc. Cameron faces planetary-sized expectations for his first narrative film (not counting a couple of documentaries) since Titanic became the highest-grossing film in history. Avatar probably wont be a Titanic-sized phenomenon, but the director and his army of technicians make an industrious effort to tell an old kind of story in a new kind of way.
Despite a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars for new 3-D equipment and motion-capture animation (à la Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films), Avatar seldom slows down to admire itself. Cameron sets a crisp pace and fills his frames with information. In one of the first shots, former marine corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) awakens from a cryosleep pod alongside scores of other space travelers in the zero-gravity hold of a starship. The 3-Ds extreme, briefly vertiginous depth of field enhances the idea that were in a far-flung environment.
To be specific, its the year 2154 and were orbiting the planet Pandora, a place of poison atmosphere, savage wildlife and the most valuable substance in the universe, puckishly called Unobtanium. (What number on the periodic table is Unobtanium, anyway?) Tensions simmer between Earths military-industrial representatives and a research team led by the Dian Fossey-like Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) over how to handle the indigenous population, the Navi a race of lithe, 10-foot-tall, stripy-blue cat people with tails, fangs and practically no clothes. The scientists can download their consciousnesses into cloned Navi bodies, called avatars, to study them up close. Sully just happens to be compatible with the avatar of his recently deceased twin brother.
Thus the audience learns the ropes of the 22nd century and Pandoras ecosystem through the eyes of Sully, a wheelchair-bound outsider seeking a chance to walk again. When Sully first tries out his looming alien body, the visual effects hit an awkward patch: The humans and aliens never seem natural in the same frame together, and the Navi take some getting used to. At times, their skulls look wider than their hips, which seems anatomically problematic. The Navis enormously expressive faces and eyes help a great deal, and Weavers avatar looks like a flashback to the actress 25 years ago (only blue).
Sully agrees to spy on the Navi for ruthless Col. Quaritch (intimidating Stephen Lang) and soon finds himself stranded in the jungle surrounded by vicious predators, including some particularly sleek and creepy hyena-like aliens. Navi princess Neytiri (voiced and physically performed by Zoe Saldana) reluctantly rescues Sully and agrees to teach him the ways of her tribe, so the audience gets to know Pandoras flora and fauna through lively training exercises. The script lays on Sullys military slang a little thick, but in the name of humanizing an alien situation: I was a Marine, a warrior of the jarhead clan, he tells the Navi (who recognize the avatars as aliens).
Despite Pandoras lighter gravity, Avatars themes can be crushingly heavy. The Navi commune with the planets ecosystem by plugging their ponytails into plants or animals, so theres lots of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. You can imagine being forced to watch the sappiest scenes every Earth Day for the rest of your life. Camerons script tries to soften the blow with Sullys tree hugger quips, but lines like The Sky People are coming to destroy the Hometree! are pretty unspeakable.
Camerons script acknowledges some of its other obvious points. The plot resembles a certain Kevin Costner Oscar-winner about a military man who gradually takes the side of native tribespeople against a technologically superior expansionist force. At one point, Sully encounters a rampaging animal and when Grace tells him neither to run nor shoot it, he asks, What do you want me to do, dance with it? How about Dances with Titanotheres?
The film plays very much like a follow-up to Camerons Aliens (and could conceivably take place in the same fictional universe). Giovanni Ribisi plays a white-collar worm virtually identical to Paul Reisers role in the earlier film. The Avatar military also uses mechanical walkers like the ones Ripley used to fight the alien queen only larger and more weaponized. Studio accountants concerned audiences wont turn out for a new film property not based on some kind of hit franchise neednt worry Avatars as derivative as any big blockbuster.
Avatar comes to a crescendo with an omigod-spectacular battle sequence featuring floating mountains and flying reptiles vs. gunships. In general, Avatar resembles a pulpy sci-fi book cover made flesh and blood, and the computerized landscapes have more solidity and detail than any other film. Ironically, you get so caught up in the action that you start to ignore the 3-D. Frankly, Id rather see the film in IMAX or the sharp resolution of a 2-D projector. Avatars whiz-bang visual achievements dont make up for the clunky plot points, but its a great piece of film escapism that improves on George Lucas Star Wars prequels. If youre looking for a thrilling fantasy at the cinema, Avatar is better than none.
[Editor's Note: This review is by CL Atlanta's Curt Holman, who handled reviewing duties on Avatar for the print edition of CL. (The film screened earlier for the vaunted Atlanta critics then for us after-thoughts down here in Tampa.) I'll have my own take on Avatar up at the end of the week, but for now you'll just have to take Curt's word for it ]
Every 3-D movie has at least one pokey part. Even a smart, visually intriguing film such as Henry Selicks Coraline or Robert Zemeckis Beowulf eventually goes out of its way to thrust something like a conspicuous needle or spear tip at the audience. As if the glasses werent reminder enough, the filmmakers invariably make a big joke of the fact that youre watching a 3-D presentation. But 3-D effects seldom transcend gimmickry they cant literally touch audiences, and they cant figuratively touch them, either.
Director James Camerons long-awaited Avatar depicts an alien race with a fondness for bows and arrows, but keeps the 3-D jutting clichés under control. Even when bloody arrowheads stick out at your face, Cameron ensures the stunts dont distract from his otherworldly story. Avatars innovative imagery affirms that some kinds of cinematic special effects can indeed touch audiences, if not on the emotional or intellectual level. If rendered properly, make-believe places, characters and events can have a seductive, escapist appeal, from King Kongs Skull Island to Star Wars alien landscapes.
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