Usually big budget special effects intensive movies leave me unimpressed. I am happy to say that was not the case with James Cameron’s hugely expensive movie Avatar, now playing everywhere. Moreover, for a change I can say that the public agrees with me, to the tune of more than a billion dollars in revenue so far worldwide and doubtless much more to come.
While certainly not a perfect movie, Avatar is an amazing wonder of state of the art special effects married with a world (Pandora) so biodiverse and culturally rich that it has the depth of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. To achieve it, James Cameron spent much of the last decade imagining Pandora and spending gobs of money to hire all sorts of artists, linguists, anthropologists and other scientists to render a wholly plausible alternative world. He then had to merge this all together with a good script and great talent to make it actually work on the screen. The result is a tour de force, an accomplishment that if it does not get Cameron Best Director at the Academy Awards will be a travesty.
Weta, the company that did the special effects for The Lord of the Rings movies, has had ten years to perfect computer-generated imagery. The ten years were well spent. Avatar is the first movie where I can honestly say the result is so richly realized that I can no longer tell CGI from live action. You will see none of the digital jerkiness you saw ten years ago when Gollum was rendered for The Lord of the Rings. If you can afford to spend a few hundreds of millions of dollars on CGI for a movie, you can render a world that exists only in a computer and still make it wholly plausible. What is amazing is that Cameron manages to pull off not just a technical triumph, but he also manages to integrate all the live action elements into a compelling and well-acted story.
You have to get to the end of the movie (or to have read the reviews) to name the flaws in this movie. To some the long battle sequences at the end of the movie will seem tedious. The real flaw (and certainly not a fatal one) is that the characters have little depth. This is because this is essentially the noble savage story, which has been retold many times. This is the white man landing in the New World and finding the natives offensive because they are not like them and don’t particularly want to play nice. Not to give too much away but at least in Avatar it quickly becomes clear that the humans (for the most part) are the savages, bent on destroying a rich, highly integrated world in the pursuit of some highly prized mineral. Pandora is really Gaia, the mythical world that is one giant living organism. (In reality, the Earth is also Gaia, it is just that most of us refuse to see it or believe it.)
So you get super muscled characters like Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to whom the native extra-tall, blue-tinted and human-like creatures of the woods (the Na’vi) will always be brutes. Even if they are not, he does not care and has no problem destroying anyone who gets in his way. You also get Sigourney Weaver as Doctor Grace Augustine, a legendary expert on the Na’vi and Na’vi sympathizer. Naturally, she quickly butts heads with Colonel Quaritch. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to Pandora to attempt to become trusted by the Na’vi and to be Quaritch’s mole. He does this by living in a simulator where he directs his avatar remotely. In this case, an avatar is a cloned Na’vi that Jake directs from his simulator. The simulator is really more of an interface and it is so good that he effectively becomes his clone. Jake learns all about the subtle ways of the Na’vi and their complex culture. He is soon befriended and coached by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, a.k.a. Lieutenant Uhura from the recently released Star Trek movie). And you guessed it: Jake soon begins to bond with the Na’vi, falls in love with Neytiri and in time turns against his own race. He begins what looks like an impossible quest to save both the Na’vi and Pandora from his own species, which will stop at nothing to get at Pandora’s minerals.
It turns out that though the plot is shallow, it really doesn’t matter because the acting is good enough, the story engaging enough, the world is so richly detailed and the CGI is so amazing. It could have been a better movie with a wee bit more time and attention to the plot and characterization but in a project this massive, I guess something had to give.
I recently reviewed Up in the Air and said I expected Avatar to be not quite as good. Trying to compare the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are well acted and well directed. However, the movies each serve different kinds of audiences. Up in the Air is the more human of movies and is certainly better acted and has a more thoughtful and engaging story. Nevertheless, by leaps and bounds Avatar is the better-imagined movie and is so visually rich and dense that even with its minor flaws it turns out to be marginally better.
If you haven’t seen Avatar, you should. This is one of those movies where you really should pay extra to see it in 3D, as it actually adds something to the film. The characters may be largely stereotypes, but it fully engages you and should leave you feeling breathless.
Great job. Mr. Cameron. You may not win the gold for Avatar, but you definitely deserve the silver. Thanks for making one of the few extremely expensive movies where not only did I feel that I got my money’s worth, but where I should have left a hefty tip.
3.4 on my four-point scale.