Whether it changes filmmaking forever or not, director James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is every bit as spectacular as its rumored $300 million
budget and 15 years in development would suggest.
Cameron hasn’t directed a major feature film since his ‘Titanic’ destroyed every box office record in the book back in 1997. Here he returns
to his bread and butter: science fiction. Cameron created the ‘Terminator’ franchise and brought us both ‘Aliens’ and ‘The Abyss.’
Much of the talk about ‘Avatar’ will concern its completely seamless use of digital visual effects and its stellar 3D presentation. And it truly
is an incredible technical achievement. Computer generated characters are every bit as convincing as their live action counterparts. This
complete sense of immersion has rarely been accomplished in film previously. ‘Avatar’ effortlessly masters it in just about every frame.
The effects are also made all the more spectacular by incredible art direction that packs every shot with the visual inventiveness and
creativity. The vibrant forests, vistas and creatures of this alien world are truly jaw-dropping in their design and execution.
Further bringing the planet of Pandora to life is its RealD 3D presentation. This is one of the first films I have seen that truly uses 3D to
support the film, rather than overwhelm it. There are no gimmicky yo-yos flying at the camera or spears poking out your eyes. These are
subtle effects that don’t draw attention, but truly suck you into the film all the more. And in this regard, Cameron deserves complete credit
because of his direction. He has made a film intended to be shown in 3D from the very beginning, yet avoids all the pitfalls of the process.
He also avoids the trap of completely losing the characters and plot amid the entire spectacle. Despite all its technical achievements,
‘Avatar’ succeeds as a film because it’s superbly acted and directed.
‘Avatar’ follows paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully. Sully travels to Pandora in search of a new beginning. Taking his dead twin brother’s place
in the Avatar program, Sully remotely controls a replication (or Avatar) of one of the natives to infiltrate and gain their trust. Called the Na’vi,
these indigenous humanoids are living right on top of a precious metal the humans desperately seek. Sully must get them to move before
the full force of the humans makes them move.
Although good, Cameron’s script is probably the weakest link here. The story works well enough and is never overshadowed by his
incredible visuals and action, but is nothing terribly original. Dialog is perfectly functional, but only occasionally memorable. Cameron’s
material gets a huge boost from an excellent cast that includes Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana and Stephen Lang. There is also an excellent
supporting performance by Giovanni Ribisi.
‘Avatar’ is an incredibly busy screenplay and Cameron is able to do the almost impossible in weaving together everything and the kitchen
sink without leaving any thread noticeably underdeveloped. As a result, the bloated 160 minute plus running time never drags. Cameron
the director certainly saves Cameron the writer in a lot of ways. Under lesser direction, this project would easily collapse under its own
weight. There are very few that could execute the nearly outlandish scale of the final battle, but Cameron does just that.
The film also owes a lot to James Horner’s score. It contains every Horner cliché in the book (He is notorious for reusing old material), but
his music has an energy and depth that we haven’t heard from him in years.
Although I’m giving ‘Avatar’ four stars, I have to admit that it’s a three and a half star movie that gets the boost because of its spectacle. I
honestly think seeing it in 3D boosts it to a four star experience. Either way, ‘Avatar’ is an incredible visual feast and a very good film even
discounting its technical prowess.
* * * *
(out of four)
Written and Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney
Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Cinematography by: Mauro Fiore
Music by: James Horner
Produced by: James Cameron and Jon Landau
Released: December 18, 2009; 160 Minutes