Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Avatar

I don't need to tell you that James Cameron's latest film is a great movie, that it's already become a cultural touchstone akin to nearly every one of his other films.  It's a bygone conclusion that Avatar is a fantastic piece of cinema, but simply leaving it at that is meaningless.  At this point, the movie being anything less than stellar would be viewed as a failure on at least some level.  Thankfully, the reality is that Avatar is every bit the amazing movie-going experience that the months of hype have suggested. And then some.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine whose been contracted to the alien planet of Pandora.  There, he's tasked with operating an avatar, an alien body engineered to be controlled by Jake's brain.  His mission is to infiltrate the native population, a race of animalistic, ten foot-tall humanoids called the Na'vi. There, his mission is to convince them to leave their home so that the human colonizers can mine the precious rock underneath.  Of course, over time Sully takes a shine to the Na'vi, particularly the chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is.  Avatar is an amalgam of half a dozen other stories, and spins them all together into something wholly unique.  There are shades of Apocalypse Now, Dances with Wolves, The Matrix, and even the Pocahontas/John Smith story in Cameron's tale, and it's a testament to his talents as a storyteller that everything is integrated so seamlessly.  

Calling Avatar derivative is no great leap, but criticizing the film for it is to completely ignore the concept of the Monomyth, Joseph Campbell's term for the story that mankind has been retelling ever since the first cave painting. Every story is derivative of some earlier tale in some way, shape or form, and it's the storyteller's duty to pass such stories down through the ages.  I'm not simply saying "The Monomyth exists, therefore Avatar must be good."  What I'm saying is that the way Cameron distills other tales here, along with some of his own ideas, is inspired, and just because the premise evokes other stories is no basis for criticism.

If I have any criticisms at all it's that, believe it or not, the film feels a bit too short.  So much time is given to Sully's exploration of Pandora and the Na'vi culture, that when it comes time for the action to really get going, things become a little rushed.  There's still a good payoff at the end, but the climactic battle between the humans and the Na'vi feels about 10 minutes too short.  There can't possibly be material cut out of the film.  At 162 minutes, it's not like Cameron was worried about the film being too long.  What's there is fine; it's great even.  I guess I just wanted to see more...

Technically, however, Avatar is a film like no other.  CG technology has come a long way since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and even further since the days of Tron.  The world that James Cameron creates is almost tangible in its construction.  The forests, the creatures, even the clouds, all of it comes to life through Cameron's lens, and the 3D technology really makes this world pop.  It took ten years and countless millions of dollars of development, but all that time and money definitely paid off.  Sure, there are moments where the visual effects feel a bit cartoonish, but none of it ever looks phony.  The depth of the jungles on Pandora is staggering, and the nighttime scenes are really where the 3D shines.

There really isn't a sour note to be found in this film.  The story, such as it is, sweeps you up in its eco-grandiosity (can I say that?)  Worthington and Saldana have a lot of chemistry together, and some truly great character moments shine through all the special effects.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang also turn in equally strong performances as Sully's science advisor and commanding officer (respectively).  The human element is solid in this film, but the focus is clearly on the Na'vi, and Cameron manages to cull some really unique performances through all the CG and motion-capture.

Only time will tell if Avatar is destined to become a classic, or if it will sag and age the way Titanic has begun to (go watch it again if you don't believe me).  For now, though, the film stands as one of the greatest technical achievements in a year littered with outstanding science fiction.  Whether time will favor Moon, District 9, or Avatar, what's clear is that James Cameron is one of Hollywood's last remaining sure things.

****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

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