Like many others, I was deeply skeptical of Avatar, James Cameron’s first fictional endeavor since Titanic. I watched the trailers online and cynically said the movie looks like a cross between Dances with Wolves and The Smurfs, except with fancier guns. And in a year when Terminator and Transformers disappointed audiences, it’s easy to be skeptical of blockbusters, particularly one that purports to revolutionize movies. That being said, my expectations were wildly exceeded. I’ve never seen anything quite like Avatar. It’s an unrivaled theater-going experience. You must see it in a theater, and only in 3D.
Our hero is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled marine who unexpectedly finds himself en route to planet Pandora. The human’s presence there is twofold. Firstly, scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) wants to study the planet and its inhabitants, while businessman Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) seeks to mine Pandora of a precious mineral. The planet’s humanoid race, the Na’vi, live on the richest deposit the resource. In order to relocate the Na’Vi, the Colonel (Stephen Lang) advocates an aggressive invasion. For the time being, Parker and Grace and her team try a diplomatic approach. Jake, Grace, and others enter coffin-like machines to control flesh-and-blood Na’vi avatars. The idea is that once the Na’Vi accept the avatars into the community, the humans can convince them to move. After a disastrous first outing, Jake forms a tenuous bond with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a native who is told to teach Jake the ways of her people. It goes without saying Jake begins to love Neytiri and his avatar body, so much so he must fight alongside the Na’Vi against the Colonel and his gunships.
Such a summary does not do Avatar justice. The movie is worth seeing for its visuals alone. Pandora is realized with exquisite beauty. Unlike most 3D movies which resemble simply-drawn cartoons, the landscapes and creatures of Pandora are impeccably designed. I don’t know how the production team did it, but the Na’Vi in particular look flesh- like and real. It’s easy to doubt Cameron’s achievement because from what the trailers would have you believe, the Na’Vi are stuck in the uncanny valley. Many think that precisely because the big screen is the only place one can properly appreciate the richness of Cameron’s vision. A crummy laptop is simply too small for his imagination. 3D has been a popular gimmick for decades. Cameron eschews its novelty, and instead uses 3D to make Avatar a more immersive experience. Watching the movie, it’s almost as if Pandora surrounded me, and I didn’t dare look away from the screen.
Immediately after the movie, I was disappointed with the story. There are no big leaps in the narrative, and regular moviegoers will guess every plot point. Now I’ve come to think the familiar storyline is an asset. All the major characters embody classic archetypes, so it’s easy to identify with them, which is necessary for such a daring setting. Spectacle overshadows the uniformly effective acting. With an understated delivery, Worthington is a believable grunt – his transformation into a Na’Vi warrior is even a little heartwarming. Lang makes a great scenery-chewing villain, one who is easy to despise. Special attention, however, should be given to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Along with Andy Serkis, she’s the only actor to turn a CGI humanoid into a developed, sympathetic creature. The accomplishment is even more noteworthy because unlike the grotesque Gollum, Neytiri is actually kind of hot, blue tail and all.
First and foremost, James Cameron is an action director. Aliens and the first couple Terminators are classics. Avatar has its share of action, but Cameron takes his time to arrive at the Na’Vi/human battle. Cameron deftly draws the lines, so once all hell breaks loose, it’s easy for audience to comprehend the violence. So much action fills the frame that the climax overwhelms and thrills. It’s a masterful sequence, one that will be remembered for years to come. We have been conditioned to doubt Hollywood’s ability to produce such an imaginative blockbuster. Avatar is an example of a first-class director at the top of his form – within moments of its eye-popping first shot, naysayers will be silenced by visual wonder that’ll take their breath away.