A World Apart
James Cameron's Avatar has arrived after over a decade of speculation and anticipation -- but I don't need to tell you that. Even those casually interested in movies know about the director's post-Titanic project and how he had to wait for the technology to catch up to what he wanted to commit to film. We all realize what a ferocious beast the hype machine is, and as objective as you'd like to be, all those years spent wondering what Cameron's been tinkering with will have a bearing on your judgment. With this in mind, I think Avatar is quite entertaining. It's one last blockbusting hurrah to close out 2009. But in spite of all the film's visual moxie, I'm not convinced what it offers is the way of cinema's future.
At first, Cameron's vision of things to come looks pretty familiar. Having squandered our natural resources, mankind now turns to the planet of Pandora for a new way out. The target is an invaluable mineral, but getting it is another story. There's also the matter of the towering Na'vi, Pandora's blue-skinned residents, who don't take kindly to the "sky people" plundering their homeland. Thus, disabled soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is recruited to infiltrate the Na'vi inner circle and learn their ways through a homegrown alien body. Jake unexpectedly takes to his new surroundings quickly and even falls in love with tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Realizing the error of his ways, Jake sets about rallying Pandora's people to stand together and fight for their world.
With Avatar, Cameron again displays his talent for combining technological innovation with escapist entertainment. Big-budget action flicks are a Hollywood mainstay, but to his credit, Cameron had a huge responsibility to live up to. Avatar isn't based on any film, TV show, comic book, or previous property; more or less, the picture is all Cameron's doing, and it falls upon him to draw viewers into a world they know nothing about. Many movies flounder in simply finding stuff to do for a couple hours, but that viewers keep a straight face throughout Avatar speaks volumes about its effect. Never was there a moment where I rolled my eyes or searched for an excuse to dash to the facilities. Cameron stands by his premise, and so do we, gladly immersing ourselves in a land of hammerhead rhinos and amazing technicolor dragons.
Pandora itself is Avatar's main draw, and as usual, Cameron is generous with the eye candy. It's a gorgeous movie, plain and simple, though the planet's flora and fauna benefit more than the Na'vi do. But even then, while they take some getting used to, you come to see these lithe beings as characters and not mere polished pixels. Avatar is a real looker, though it's not enough to distract from a story spread pretty thin. Without even glancing at the trailer, you can surmise things will boil down to an "us vs. them" scenario, pitting the stereotypically gung-ho military against the peace-loving Na'vi. The action is staged consistently (ending with an admittedly spectacular finale), but I couldn't shake the idea that Cameron kept showing off his toys whenever the story well ran dry. Worthington is fine as the stalwart Jake, though it's Saldana who earns additional kudos for bringing out Neytiri's fighting spirit from beneath her animation.
Like Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron is a gifted enough artist to use the technology at his beck and call to enhance the viewing experience rather than undermine it. Avatar is as engaging and exciting as mainstream fare has appeared this year, although its sway ends at just being pretty darn good. While certain senses may feast more than others, Avatar won't leave viewers feeling too famished.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)