Note: The following review originally ran on SciFi Squad, and is being reprinted tonight on Cinematical ahead of the film's theatrical release tomorrow.
The buzz and buzzkill leading up to Avatar, it turns out, found inadequate purchase now that the world has finally glimpsed the fabled film. The echo chamber of hype that believed it would drastically alter the landscape of filmmaking forever, the virulent, vitriolic cries of Dances with Smurfs, the total indifference...all misplaced.
You are not prepared for Avatar. Roll your eyes at that; laugh it off, you've heard that pitch before. It's not hyperbole, though, it's bald truth. Whether it's your most anticipated movie of the year or your least, it is not precisely what you think it is. How could it be? Avatar is a motion picture precedent, after all. It's fair to say that the core conflict is less than revolutionary and that parts of the narrative are broad, but those ills are scarcely symptomatic of James Cameron's ultimate goal. It's not about challenging the formula of Group X oppresses Group Y, who then fight back. Nor is it about only showcasing the bleeding edge technology that Cameron and company have invented and licensed over the last decade. Avatar is about transporting a viewer to the awe-inspiring alien world of Pandora and integrating them into its fantastic way of life for 150 minutes. That's the bullseye Cameron is aiming for, and that is the bullseye he obliterates.
Avatar has no peers when it comes to world building on the big screen. Every detail of Pandora is astoundingly organic, as if Cameron stumbled upon a lush, jungle moon orbiting a gas giant with wildly unique indigenous species and decided to beam down a camera crew. Your brain will want to tell you that every bit of bio-luminescent moss, every drifting leaf, every flying banshee, and every Na'vi was created on a bank of hard drives in a studio, but that's only initial skepticism. Life on Pandora is so divergent from Earth that by the time you've acclimated to Cameron's dream world, you'll no longer be scouring the motion capture work for digital imperfections. You'll be wholly immersed in the adventure of a one Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine hired by a corporation mining a rare mineral on Pandora to partake in their Avatar program.
Among other things, Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a sentient species of 10 foot tall blue hominids who happen to call a site that sits atop an untapped vein of said rare mineral home. The idea is that Jake will join a team of altruistic researchers who plan to link consciousness with genetically engineered Na'vi bodies (the titular avatars) in an attempt to convince the natives that they need to relocate their home. Before going off to live among the locals, however, the corporation's scheming security honcho, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), makes a deal with Jake: discretely relay any crucial details that will help undermine the Na'vi should an assault be necessary and he'll get the company to pay for the spinal surgery that will make Jake walk again. As one can guess, things don't go as planned, and Jake soon begins to fall in love with his new found life on Pandora.
Cynics will cite that removing the science fiction elements from Avatar leaves behind a warmed over, anti-imperialism storyline, but even with heroic diatribes against 'people who think they can take whatever they want', such reductions are missing the (lush) forest for the (enormous) trees. And while the idea of joining forces with a species that lives harmoniously with the land they worship may appear to boast an overtly topical agenda given the current pro-environment fervor that has spread across our own planet, it's hard to believe either issue rested atop Cameron's to-do list. The clear intent here is to tell the story of a man without a station in life who seizes the opportunity to make something of his crippled existence in an extraordinary, beautiful new world, screws it up, and then tries to redeem himself.
Any narrative missteps lay not in the simplistic framework, rather within broad-appeal techniques like exposition voice overs that come by way of a video log Jake is told to update in order to maintain mental acuity. Cameron spends enough time showing and not telling that these fluke moments of non-revelation (targeted, no doubt, to the few in the audience who can't suss out what's going on) interrupt the visual poetry of his storytelling. And the same goes for a few jarring bits of uninspired dialogue that, unfortunately, survived into the vernacular of 150 years from now. The script for Avatar has been kicking around Cameron's desk for at least 15 years, but that's no excuse for the future to have lame lines like "I knew I had to take it to the next level" and scientists that call people "numb-nuts".
While those minor complaints may pinch when they pop up, they subside quite quickly, and Cameron returns to introducing a stunning universe of ecology on a scale the likes of which cinema knew not. The obvious expectation for Avatar was that it would raise the always-on-the-way-up special effects bar, but to say that Cameron merely raises the bar would be an understatement. He and his effects team have eliminated the familiar benchmark entirely. Such a comment is not meant to undermine past technical accomplishments, however. Davy Jones' tentacled face in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gollum in Lord of the Rings, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park; all are magnificent special effects centerpieces in the service of equally magnificent stories. The difference with Avatar is that there is no singular centerpiece.
There's a line in the film in which the corporate overseer (Giovanni Ribisi) bemoans how spiritual the Na'vi are by exclaiming it's impossible to throw a stick on Pandora and not hit something the natives hold sacred; a sentiment applicable to all of the visuals on screen. No individual element appears to have received the brunt of the budget, which is no doubt why Avatar has notoriously been lauded as the most expensive film ever made. Instead, every pixel looks as though it received the same amount of love as the one next to it, no matter if that pixel is part of an insect or a Na'vi warrior's loin cloth. It's not photorealistic, mind you, yet neither is it supposed to be. Persistent is the watchword here.
The motion capture utilized is the most emotive the medium has known to date, but all the production wizardry would be for naught without worthy source performances. Sam Worthington aptly conveys the wounded psyche of a soldier whose only commodity is his failing body, but its Stephen Lang and Zoe Saldana that steal the show. Lang's delivery of the ultimate military badass is striking enough to dominate every scene he's in, inspiring a not entirely secret wish that the character get an origin film of his own. Serving as a perfect foil to Lang's black-hearted-demeanor is Saldana's Neytiri, a character wrought with sufficient emotion to make one question whether she was indeed a complete CGI creation.
As far as the 3D is concerned, I remain indifferent. On the one hand, Cameron's color palette wonderfully compensates against the traditional tendency of 3D glasses to dull a film's cosmetics, but on the other hand the added depth reveals nothing beyond what's already present without the added eye wear. [Edit: Having now taken another trip to Pandora in a theater that actually knows how to project a movie without having the left third of the screen be slightly out of focus, I rescind my indifference to the 3D. It is glorious.]
It's misleading to say that the arrival of Avatar has changed cinema forever, yet in a number of ways it has set such alterations in motion. It's hard to imagine any studio jumping the gun to throw the same payload Cameron required from Fox to set his precedent to another filmmaker, so in that regard movies at large remain unaffected for the near future. However, its myriad of accomplishments will inevitably serve as an agent of change down the line. Avatar is primed to leave a huge dent in the notions that motion capture films equate to soulless, dead-eyed characters, that sci-fi films must consist of pop music soundtracks and giant, clashing robots to have broad appeal, and that big screen fantasy lands have to be anchored in familiar, Earth-like places to yield heartfelt audience investment.
On a more personal level, Avatar is also the first film to inspire me to even consider writing the phrase "If you see only one movie this year..." with a serious face, but even that accolade seems lacking. What Cameron has meticulously engineered is such a breath of new, cinematic air that there should be no nebulous "If you see" possibility. Simply see it.
More on Avatar: Check out Todd Gilchrist's review.