Now, over a decade later, we finally get to see what Jim Cameron's feature follow-up to Titanic is... and... aw, no WAY! It's Avatar! Yes indeed, kids, this project has been in production for a decade, just waiting for the right funding and technology! That's not to say that Jimmy C. has been resting on his laurels? No way man! He's produced and even directed a couple of quality Television projects and even kept his Abyss/ Titanic pump primed with three deep sea documentaries. Still, let it never be said that Cameron goes back on his word, man! He announced his next Feature Flick would be Avatar and all these years later, his next flick actually IS Avatar!
The real and obvious question must be "was it worth the wait"? The answer is... do bears bear? Do bees be? In short... Yes indeedily-doodily! This is a truly awe-inspiring epic and, while it's not without its flaws, Avatar more than fills the screen with a great story as well as treating the eyes with some of the most stunning visuals you'll ever see... and that's especially if you see it in IMAX 3-D)... which I did.
This Cameron-written and directed film introduces us to an Ex-Marine named Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) who lost the use of his legs in combat years before. Lucky for him he has both fate and genetics on his side, as his twin brother Tommy was recently killed while on a project that requires his exact genome for involvement. The promise of both something to do and the potential to get his legs back leads him to accept the role that his brother was going to play in a bizarre military and corporate experiment on a distant world called Pandora!
The job involves landing on the planet Polyphemus' moon of Pandora and joining a mining expedition intent on collecting as much of a super-rare fueling element while surviving the indiginous life-forms who want to stick poison arrows in those pesky, meddling humans. The indiginous life-forms in question are a seemingly primitive race of seven foot Blue-As-Smurfs physically fit spiritual warriors called The Na'vi. Jake's job is to remotely control one of the genetically constructed Na'vi bodies (the "Avatars" of the title), especially made with his brother's DNA to work with and through the Na'vi to convince them to somehow leave their land so that a race of invaders they can't stand can rip up their forest and steal their minerals.
So, yeah, easy job. I'm sure he'll just give back his paycheck and say "Nah, I feel guilty!" But then, if it all works out, he might just get the use of his legs back! Once he gets a taste of running around again in his (brother's) new Avatar body, he's all too ready to start hopping, skipping and jumping, but quick, folks!
Unfortunately for him, the program isn't as welcoming to Jake as Jake's erstwhile physical form is. While officious little corporate prick Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) thinks the whole thing is a smart idea, the actual scientist running the Avatar program, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), most assuredly considers Jake's inclusion a textbook definition of a "Dick Move"! Biologist (and, like Grace, fellow Avatar driver) Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) is mixed on the idea, while the Mercenary contingent (largely represented by the requisite BBMFIC, Stephen Lang's Colonel Miles Quaritch) thinks a good Marine like J-Dawg might be the perfect tool to gain some valuable intel on those all-too-in-the-way Na'vi!
After what seems like an IKEA Catalog worth of expository dialogue, Grace, Jake and Normie hitch a ride with Copter Pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) deep into Na'vi land which leads to that familiar series of unfortunate events that puts Jake (well, Avatar-Jake) deep in with the Na'vi who alternately want to kiss him or kill him. Luckily a few of them learned enough English from Grace's temporary school to help Jake communicate.
The beautiful Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña) sees a bit of the spark of their goddess Eywa, while her potential mate Tsu'Tey (Laz Alonso) is just about ready to use every bit of his warrior skill to smash "Jakesully" into Minced Avatar Meat. Still, the Chieftain Eytucan (Wes Studi) and the Shaman Mo'at (C.C.H. Pounder) are willing to give him a shot, so we get the chance to see Jam-Cam's version of A Man Called Horse, Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas as the Jakenator becomes more and more "one of them"!
The thing is, as in most of Cameron's films, the journey is incredible. The characters are well developed and realistic (yes, believe it or not, they are) and the drama is well-handled and paced to the point that the drastic changes that Shakey Jake goes through are easy to buy into. On our way to the inevitable Special Effects rich Final Battle, we see characters of all stripes deciding just which side the side of right is on. Further, a new definition of Nature versus Technology might be found while the idea of true need versus greed is explored in a newly fascinating way. That story, from Cameron's PEN and LENS are is incredible to see unfold.
Truly, this is among the most beautiful films a visual movie fan could ever hope to see! The decade of special effects improvement was well worth the wait as the uncanny characters that make up most of this film somehow feel as real or more than the real human actors that we see as themselves. This is partially because the Na'vi were designed by The Stan Winston Studio (including work by Stan himself) and animated by some of the top firms in the business from Weta to ILM (and, at the risk of sounding like K-tel, Many, Many More). Naturally, it doesn't hurt that the performances are not those of CGI constructs, but of the actors themselves, thanks to more motion capture than you can capture in motion. It's worth the wait, worth the time, worth the money and worth the hype when all is said and done... and that's especially in IMAX 3-D, as I saw it. The film is just about visually flawless and truly breathtaking in its ambition, scope and visuals.
The truth is, the story is excellent as well, from the opening shot, through each of the 161 Minutes, all the way through the closing credits. It's a rich, engrossing story taken from the man who has done the impossible before (like making a flick about Murderous Cyborgs from the Future into an "A" picture).
That said, it's hard to not notice that Avatar does feel more than a little familiar at times and somewhat forced at others. The latter can be chalked up to the concept that Cameron had so much story he probably could have filled up 161 minutes twice over! Thus even great, great thespians like Sigourney Weaver seem a bit like they're reading from Cue Cards without taking enough breaths as they recite reams of Cameron's expository dialogue. This still works, of course, but as the tale progresses it's easy to see how much of this we've watched before.
The idea of the modern (or POST-modern) man becoming one with the more primitive, natural people at the risk of his own culture has been done more than a few times, as has the idea of the seemingly backwards jungle people going head-to-head against a highly technological army (though perhaps never this spectacularly). With its blatant environmental themes and physical transformation of the male lead, however, I couldn't help but be reminded a great deal of... FernGully! I'm not even kidding about that, folks, check it out. You've got the main character changing in size to become one of the forest people, falling in love with the magical and independent young female he first meets and helping them all to defend themselves against the evil humans who wish to chop down their trees and rape their resources. Dudes and Chicks, they even have the attacking-the-bulldozer scene and the one sacred tree that they dare not lose! But, HEY Twentieth Century Fox did release both films, so... Producer? Sue Thyself!
The metaphor here is subtle enough to keep from becoming too preachy, but it's also somewhat obvious. The idea of a spiritual race of beings who make their home atop a rich store of valuable fuel minerals, are labeled as savages and attacked by the military is more than a little clear in its inspiration. Further, some of the very terms used are self-explanatory, in spite of the overall brilliance of the script. "Eywa" sounds a lot like "Yaweh", to be sure, while the all-but unobtainable mineral that the "Sky People" want so bad... is actually called "Unobtanium"! Hmmm... must be rare, then!
Sure, on paper, Avatar may seem slightly trite... but only on paper! Familiar or not, forced and obvious or not (in a few tiny areas), Cameron's decade PLUS of work on this film more than shows. And this is, after all, James Cameron we're talking about. He managed to make a sequel called Piranha Part II at least a curiosity. This is before he infiltrated the mainstream with Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies and, of course, the best-selling movie of all time, Titanic! Somehow, James Cameron can take just about anything and make it into at least a film worth watching.... and Avatar is more than merely worth watching. It's fantastic and rousing, spectacular and beautiful and its flaws really only show up in hindsight once the film has ended.
Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Avatar! Yes, even WITH the head-scratching moments, familiar elements and encyclopedia-like soliloquies (rare, but there), Avatar is still, really THAT GOOD! When it comes to science fiction that mainstream audiences can watch and get behind, superb CGI, impressive laser battles and phantasmagorical fantasy, this film manages to pull it all together like rarely any other can! This is why this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo! See you in the Next Reel, Pandorans. I like your hair!
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