James Cameron has always been an innovator. Whether it’s defining the gold standard for a female action lead or designing cameras and processes to make the exact film he is envisioning, Cameron is a technical wizard. Match his attention to detail and his creativity with the peerless effects and design team at Weta, and you make art.
Does the story lives up to its presentation? No, but only because the presentation is exceptional. It’s an age-old fable of invading force, underestimating the natives, and being powerless to destroy them once they know them. Our history is clogged with stories like this. It’s got a love story that grows organically from the story’s plot points rather than being a plot point wedged into something else. I might blaspheme here and suggest that the Titanic love story was much more unlikely. It has hellzapopping effects, and I don’t just mean nice blowy-uppy. I mean it’s a rich, textured, fully-realized world that you want to visit, that you feel like you can visit.
Sure, it’s got a little hitting over the head of the message; no matter how loudly this particular message is repeated over the millennia of human history, it is still not heeded, so one can’t blame Cameron for laying it on a little thick. The best sci-fi is that which uses far away times and places to comment on our won existence, and Avatar definitely qualifies. In a moviegoing universe bereft of original new stories (stuffed with sequels, adaptations, and toy movies) Avatar and District 9 (and Up) stand above just for having the gall to be new. While District 9 has the stronger narrative, Avatar has the more fully realized reality. Avatar’s first appeal is going to be the experience of watching it, so I’ll not tarry further.
I’ve complained more than a few times in reviews about the “uncanny valley” or what I call “creepy valley.” I’m standing before you to declare that Avatar has no uncanny valley. Seriously. Remember your amazement at the water tentacle in the Abyss? Remember the photorealism of the Titanic sinking into the briny deep? Remember how those effects served their story rather than be the point — and how those were both directed by James Cameron? Avatar has surpassed even Lord of The Ring’s Gollum in making performance capture seamless. We are really watching Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana and Joel Moore give their full and committed performances in the bodies of the planetary natives, the Na’vi. Every small mouth movement (long the bane of motion capture techs) is — well, it’s real. Pandora, the world we humans are preparing to despoil, is real. Even with extensive understanding of CGI filmmaking in terms of practical objects and virtual spaces, you fully believe that you are immersed in a real place.
Worthington is a perfect balance of hero/soldier and boyish neophyte. Weaver draws on her Dian Fossey history even more than her Ellen Ripley experience. Saldana moves like an arboreal dancer, contrasting the powers of her alien upbringing with Worthington’s shriveled earthbound legs and making Neytiri relatable and strange in every movement — and she helps us recognize the difference between real and avatar Na’vi. These actors are of course perfectly capable of giving these performances in person — but to get across as much as they do while pulled into the semblance of a ten-foot blue cat-monkey-warrior is amazing.
Which brings me to the 3-D. Yes, cough it up for the 3-D. My experience with both formats when watching the movie Up is that Real D (check your local listings) is simply much less effective than Dolby or Disney’s 3D. Perhaps I will get into trouble with some theatre chains, but Real D just can’t handle dynamic movement without blurring, and it lacks the depth that Pandora needs. Pandora is a beautiful place, with logical interrelationships between species — you could probably work out their entire evolutionary scale from the specimens represented. Deeper connections in this alien biosphere are key to the plot and to appreciating the allure of the Na’vi. The grandeur of the landscape is served by the understated-but-still-clearly-James-Horner score.
The production’s approach to Pandora is reverent, which might feel forced to a skeptic. However, it is clear that the deep investment of time and care on this film inspires reverence. It may be the most expensive labor of love ever produced, being 15 years in the making as Cameron waited for the technology to catch up to the story he wanted to tell. The Na’vi consider seeing, in the sense of grok or ken, to be fundamental in tribal life and in navigating Pandora. If you allow yourself to see Avatar as it was meant (instead of bringing in Titanic baggage or waiting for DVD), you will love it as I did. Yes, he did put a stupid song at the beginning of the end credits — he just needed one more box to check on his Oscar bingo card. See it for the visuals, enjoy it for the acting, and appreciate it for its intent. I can’t wait to go there again.
Release date 12/18/09
Time in minutes 160
Director James Cameron
Studio 20th Century Fox