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Avatar (2009) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 December 2009

I should probably get this out of the way up front: James Cameron has done it again. He's made a movie of great visual splendor that doesn't lose sight of the story or characters. Avatar is without a doubt the most beautiful and breathtaking film you will see all year (and, this late in the game, I can probably amend all decade to that statement as well). The real genius is that it's also one of the best of the year overall.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a cripple from the waist down, agrees to take his dead twin brother's place in a program on the dangerous world of Pandora. The reason people even bother to go there is because of rich mineral deposits that cannot be found on Earth. It turns out he is taking part in an "avatar" program, where human/alien hybrids are made using the DNA of specific people and Na'avi (the indigenous humanoids of the planet). Initially, Jake is shunned by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver),  the head of the program, but when he falls in with one of the Na'avi (played by Zoe Saldana, who should already be familiar to sci-fi fans for her work in Star Trek), Grace can't help but ask Jake to gather information for her. Jake is also reporting to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is looking for a military advantage over the natives. When a disgustingly rich deposit is discovered under the tribe's home, Jake must decide where his loyalties lie.

Avatar Screenshot 1

Aside from the sci-fi trappings, that story should be pretty familiar to anyone who knows a lick of film or literature history. It's the same story you'll find in Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, and Dances With Wolves. Specifically, outsider stumbles into new land, is at first at odds with the natives, gains their trust and eventually becomes one of them, helping them defeat an external threat. It's an old and cherished variation on the hero's journey, and Avatar doesn't hold too many surprises in the story department. But just because a story is tried and true doesn't mean it is bad. Far from it. Instead, keeping his story soundly within heroic archetypes allows Cameron to show off his toys of the moment: CGI motion capture and 3D.

There's been a lot of criticism of the movie for its look and design. People joked that the Na'avi looked like blue furries, and that the project looked more like a cartoon than a fully realistic alien world. Further, many decried his use of 3D, claiming it to be just a gimmick. Well, the naysayers are wrong on both counts. Avatar features the most detailed, striking, and simply awe-inducing special effects since we first saw dinosaurs come to life in Jurassic Park. The film is a treat for the senses, almost immediately throwing unbelievable imagery at the viewer. The sound is equally unique, combining found and manufactured noises to help sell the illusion that Pandora is a real place. And the 3D only reinforces that feeling. Instead of falling for the old tricks of the 50's and 80's 3D trends (you know, where the idea was to simply point things at the audience), Cameron uses the process to create a sense of depth and volume to his creation. I've previously referred to modern 3D as looking through a window to the world outside, but Cameron is so good at layering that at times you don't even feel like the window portion is there.

Avatar Screenshot 2

But none of this would be important if the characters weren't interesting. Luckily Cameron isn't just a great technical director, he's also a great director of actors (most people don't realize that Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Aliens, and has Linda Hamilton ever been better than in the two Terminator films?).  Here he has assembled a cast of fresh faces and old veterans to sell his story, and boy do they ever. Sigourney Weaver finally reunites with Cameron in yet another sci-fi actioner, and while this time her role is supporting instead of leading, she's as good as ever. Sam Worthington redeems himself for the awful Terminator: Salvation earlier this year (strange that he would star in one of the worst films of the year and one of the best, both of which are related to James Cameron), and Zoe Saldana gives a nuanced and touching performance, even though she's only seen through a motion capture CGI lens. The real treat is Stephen Lang as the Colonel. While the character isn't particularly three dimensional, Lang plays him with gusto and passion, selling the role without going over the top. If Christophe Waltz hadn't blown everyone away in Inglourious Basterds, Lang might have been a serious contender for Best Supporting Actor come February.

The final piece of the puzzle is the action. Cameron has lost none of his touch, staging epic action sequences that rival anything seen in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. And Avatar has the benefit of feeling new and fresh versus those other two franchises, both of which have been around for decades. There were times during the final battle where I wanted to stand up and cheer. The action itself is great, but I also cared about what happened to those characters. Apparently I'm not the only one, as several sequences garnered spontaneous audience applause.

Avatar Screenshot 3

Ultimately, Avatar isn't the best film of the year (that would be the stunning Inglourious Basterds), or even the best sci-fi film of the year (District 9's searing social commentary and endearingly inhuman aliens put that one in the top spot of the genre), but it's certainly among the best, and without a doubt the must-see event picture of the holidays. And while it may not outgross Titanic or The Dark Knight, it proves that James Cameron still has a vision in him, and that the time he spent laboring to bring it to the screen was well worth it.

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