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Avatar (2009)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Screenplay: James Cameron
  • Length: 162 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.

Big and beautiful, but a bit vacant, Avatar marks James Cameron’s return to the big screen 12 years after he broke records with romantic period disaster flick Titanic.

Few directors can command large budgets and deliver box office savvy pictures the way Cameron can. Surpassing popular directors like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay without breaking a sweat is one of his strongest qualities. If only his capability at screenwriting matched his talent to put butts in the seats, we would be joyful, but at least he’s better at getting to the emotional heart of the film in ways that Bay could only dream about.

The story revolves around a paraplegic soldier (Sam Worthington) sent to a mining planet where an indigenous population lives on top of the planet’s largest and most valuable source of minerals after his brother’s sudden death. Alongside the corporate/military presence on the planet, a group of anthropologists eager to study the natives called the Na’vi. They have crafted avatars of these creatures allowing them to physically inhabit the bodies from a safe distance, hopefully increasing their capability to communicate and relate. Jake Sully’s brother was one of these scientists and because they share a genetic similarity, he has been chosen to take over his brother’s work.

Meanwhile, the corporate entity is seeking a way to relocate, preferably without force, the natives so they can get to the large deposit of Unobtainium that exists below their sacred tree. But, that’s the crux of the problem. It is a sacred monument connecting them to their ancestors, literally. They would sooner die than leave.

Cameron’s screenwriting weaknesses are in dire evidence in Avatar. He peppers his story with ludicrous terms like the aforementioned Unobtainium and then oversimplifies the love affair and the social and military tensions in the film. The story isn’t terribly original, nor is it particularly well crafted, but if there is one benefit that comes out of a film as successful as this, it’s that if the diluted concept affects any of its audience and causes a shift in tone, then the film as a whole could be considered a success.

The performances are fairly bland, though it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver getting attention again. And whether her performance is digitized or not, Zoe Saldana as Sully’s Na’vi love interest Neytiri, conveys emotional depth that stands in stark contrast to Worthington’s aw-shucks performance. He reminds me of Gerard Butler, a not particularly gifted thespian, but one who can draw an audience in spite of that.

But, Avatar isn’t really about all these things. Sure, plot and performance is important, but what people are paying to see here are the visual effects. They are, simply put, amazing. Cameron spent much of the time working on this film developing the technology to convey realistic scenes and performances through digital and three-dimensional technology. His motion capture work on the Na’vi is terrific, an evolutionary improvement on the stellar work WETA did on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers & The Return of the King. The 3D, however, is where the film truly excels.

Until Up, most 3D films were filled with gimmicky effects that never serviced the plot, just titillated the audience. With Pixar’s animated achievement, we saw how 3D could be used to create artificial animated environments that had depth and focus without relying heavily on things being thrown at the camera. Avatar takes it all a step further. The film creates photo-realistic environments that look like extension of what might be found on planet earth, which is intentional on Cameron’s part. His desire to evoke environmentalism requires the audience feel like they are looking at another world, but are reminded of our own.

From the lush, luminescent jungle biome to the rich, detailed home tree, the world of Pandora is magical, original and yet familiar. But even the minor details are astounding. During a few scenes, images are placed outside the frame of the film, towards the audience. The subtlety of some of these effects makes for some spectacular sequences. The one I’m most reminded of is when smoldering ash drifts through the air. Individual specs, not incredibly noticeable, but present nonetheless, float in and out of the canvas of the screen, creating an immeasurable depth that inspires awe.

We may not love his screenplays. We may not love his characters. But we do love his movies. Whether it’s because they feel so familiar without being carbon copies of others, or that his effects draw the audience in, not distract them. Avatar is as much a success of James Cameron’s vision and forethought as it is of the advances of visual effects technology and the ability of the audience to be transported and entertained.