Thursday, January 7, 2010


By now it is a given that Avatar is a phenomenon unlike anything we've seen since...well, James Cameron's last film -- you know, that one with Kate, Leo, and the boat. Anything that I or any other critic out there writes about the film must now consider the context that we are witnessing the only legitimate challenger to Titanic's heretofore unprecedented box office success. Perhaps it is some sort of cosmic symmetry that it is made by the same man.

Now, to the film on its merits. Simply put, Avatar is everything it has been built up to be and more...and yet I cannot quite say it is an unmitigated masterpiece. This is the very definition of a "game changer," a movie that will forever change the face of filmmaking for years -- likely decades -- to come. The kind of technology James Cameron has developed at Peter Jackson's Weta Studios (which, if you haven't noticed, has set its own new standards for digital effects in this decade and cannot, in my estimation, be matched in the next) is truly groundbreaking, that word that often gets tossed around in the critical community but never actually applies...but it does in the case of Avatar. Funny, in a year where Robert Zemeckis once again tried and failed to generate any excitement about 3-D motion capture technology, Cameron comes back from his 12-year absence to perfect 3-D motion capture in a way no one ever quite thought possible. Everything is seamless, from the faces to the general weight and movement of the characters to -- if you can believe it -- even the eyes. The eyes, in fact, are the film's visual highlight -- which is saying something for a film that stretches the term "visual highlights" to unforeseen places.

All that...yet the film doesn't quite reach the highest echelon. The reason, strangely enough, lies in what is otherwise yet another of the film's strengths: its screenplay. Avatar's script, written by Cameron several years ago and presumably tweaked and perfected time and again in the years since, is actually a challenging science fiction piece teeming with fascinating ideas about love, acceptance, and the war between nature and humankind. It is not unlike The Matrix in its virtuoso thematic structure that further elevates its unparalleled visual prowess. Yet Cameron's story is plagued by that nagging predilection he has battled for decades as a writer: the filmmaker's tendency to choose simplified, over-the-top villainy and macho chest-thumping over the his more nuanced view of humanity.

The story is set in the year 2154, when a group of eager scientists -- along with the U.S. military -- are in the process of exploring Pandora, a distant planet that possesses mass quantities of a particular mineral (its name: "unobtanium," which, let's be honest, is a little too clever for its own good) that Earth desperately wants. The goal of the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), is to permeate the culture of Pandora's indigenous people, the Na'vi, through Augustine's "Avatar Project." Participants lie in hibernation chambers while their Avatars, which fully resemble the Na'vi people, attempt to integrate into the culture, learning about the Na'vi and teaching them about humans, in an attempt to peacefully co-exist. The military's objectives are less nuanced, as you might imagine; led by the ridiculously growling Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), U.S. forces intend to occupy Pandora, forcefully impose our will upon the Na'vi, and bulldoze their planet -- which flourishes with beautiful forests and rare vegetation -- to use as we see fit.

The Na'vi are a lean, athletic people who stand ten feet tall, with beautiful blue skin and glowing eyes who have a psychic bond with nature and animals, speak in their own complex language (which Cameron, in a very Tolkien-esque move, devised himself), and are bound together through their sort-of Deity-slash-lifeforce, Eywa. They mean Earth no harm, and would rather be left entirely alone, but might be more accepting of the open-armed, open-minded approach Augustine and her team of scientists bring to their explorations. However, the military and its corporate backers wrest control away from the geeky scientist group, imposing a grave threat to which the Na'vi do not react kindly.

At the center of the story is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound former Marine whose heroic twin brother was killed in battle, and who enlists in Augustine's Avatar project by cutting a hush-hush deal with the military that he will "get his legs back" via spinal surgery in exchange for delivering crucial intel to the growling Col. Quaritch. Of course, once Jake experiences life on Pandora (where, through his Avatar, he can run, jump, and do everything he wishes he could as a human), his view of the Na'vi and their precious land changes. Not only does he acclimate to the unique culture, he also falls in love, with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, in the most astonishing digital performance the cinema has ever seen), a beautiful Na'vi warrior who exposes Jake to a world he never knew.

The conflicts are much more complex than one might imagine going into the defining blockbuster of its time. The love story between Jake and Neytiri is charming and compelling, much as Titanic's love story was. And embedded within the screenplay are rich ideas about valuing the environment, cherishing our natural resources, and caring for all people over corporate greed and military strong-arming. The script's challenging notes are hit with ease, and we get a sense that Cameron has been meticulously honing his ideas as the culture has evolved over the past two decades. It is strange, then, that his depiction of the film's villains, specifically the barking Col. Quaritch, is so flat, one-note, and distractingly overwrought. Sure, this is an epic whose story is told in broad, powerful strokes, but the characterizations of the film's villains becomes tedious at best and damaging at worst. Cameron's screenplay hiccups are not helped by Stephen Lang's performance as Quaritch, which goes beyond scenery-chewing and reaches a film-destroying level. In one of the biggest, most groundbreaking films of all time, its overall quality is markedly diminished by one of the worst screen performances in history. That's right -- no lie.

Even amid the lame portrayals and heinous acting from Lang, Avatar is an undeniably remarkable experience from beginning to end, from its extraordinary technical achievement to its compelling ideas to the good work from many of the other actors, from Weaver's tough-yet-sensitive scientist to Worthington's wounded hero and especially Saldana's Neytiri, who is a mind-boggling achievement in every capacity. Saldana should absolutely receive an Oscar nomination for her work...and should probably win, which would be the first time in history a motion capture performance won an Academy Award.

And not even Lang's acting can get in the way of Avatar's awe-inspiring third act, which demonstrates that Cameron is the world's foremost action director. He builds action and suspense in a way that stands head and shoulders above every other director in the business, and even integrates his writing skills into wordless action scenes, building three-act structures around his epic battles, taking each sequence to the next level, keeping us surprised and on the edge of our seat until the very end.

There is a lot to discuss about Avatar. Even this rambling review has barely scratched the surface. It is a grand, powerful epic, and a spectacular technical achievement, and the very definition of an Event Movie. You must see it, you must experience it, you must digest it, and you must savor the moment. Even as an imperfect film, Avatar is amazing.

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