- There's no doubt: Avatar is a tantalizing glimpse into the future of movie-making. It's an eye-melting, wholly immersive 3D extravaganza, a techno-wonder that is not simply science-fiction in terms of genre, but nearly science-fiction come to life in terms of the computer-generated, motion-captured wizardy that made this film possible. In that respect, the sheer experience of seeing Avatar is one of the most unique and breathtaking that you can have in a movie theater. It's a roller-coaster ride of a movie, no doubt, and the wonderment of the journey is almost more akin to that of a theme park ride than that of a typical night at the cinema. But a two-plus hour movie cannot succeed on visual prowess and artistry alone, especially one whose narrative ambitions are almost as lofty as its aesthetic ones. Some have said that Avatar was a cinematic experience the likes of which they haven't enjoyed since Star Wars. Hype was huge, and expectations through the roof. For me, the excitement for Avatar has been years in the making, and that reached a boiling point this past summer in San Diego. Watching some of the film's best scenes in digital 3D, in a packed audience of hardcore fanboys, the feeling of geeky euphoria was unbelievable. Here was a great cinematic hero, James Cameron, returning to the types of movies that made him an icon, bringing the masses the next great revolution in epic sci-fi storytelling. As the backlash to the hype and the cynicism grew over the last few months, I remained quietly optimistic. I didn't know for sure whether Avatar would deliver, but somewhere, in the back of my mind, I hoped it really would be that damn good - the best thing since Star Wars, the movie to end all movies. I know, it's an insurmountable level of expectation to meet, but the fact is - Avatar was an unparallelled moviegoing experience, a visual spectacular and a treat for the senses. But in terms of timeless mythmaking, in terms of delivering those heart-stopping, emotional moments that make movies into legends, in terms of creating beloved characters that 20, 30 years from now people will still be talking about? I'm sorry, but I just don't think Avatar was on that level of storytelling as some of the classics. Most movies ... most movies I wouldn't begrudge for not achieving iconic status. But Avatar is competing on a different level in terms of ambition. And for all its imagination and technological wonderment, I don't think the basic pieces of Avatar - the things that ultimately elevate movies from very good to great to legendary - quite match up with the aesthetic experience.
To start off though, let me rave a bit about those visuals. From the moment Avatar starts, the word on the top of everyone's tongues is, simply, "wow." The depth of field that the visuals possess is astounding. The 3D doesn't just create opportunities for things to pop out at you in a gimmicky manner, it creates a picture with multiple planes, creating environments that seem more vividly realized, more expansive, more vast than in any other movie to date.
Secondly, there's the motion-capture CGI. To me, this area of the movie's visuals was slightly more touch and go. But I think a lot of that simply boils down to aesthetics as opposed to technical proficiency. What I mean is - Zoe Saldana as the Na'vi alien Neytiri is really a phenomenal work of art. Saldana, fresh off another huge sci-fi role in this summer's Star Trek, just seems to inherently understand how to get the most out of motion-capture performance. The fusion of her skilled acting with CGI-enhanced alien DNA is really a sight to behold. Neytiri feels real, feels "human." The textures, the eyes, the nuances of the movement - it really is pretty remarkable. Honestly, I think the Na'vi can look a bit goofy at times, but when Neytiri is on-screen, she 100% sells the whole thing.
Let me take a step back for a second and talk about the premise of the film. Basically, it's a story about foreign conquerors encroaching on another people's native land, and the one man who ends up being torn between the two warring civilizations. In this case, the foreign conquerers are us - the humans. Seems that in the future, earth's resources have been utterly depleted. In a time when earth's been ravaged by war and strife, mankind turns to space to search for valuable new sources of fuel and energy. As it turns out, a lush, Eden-like planet called Pandora holds vast quantities of a mineral called Unobtanium, and an armada of military-industrial heavies has been sent from earth to raid it of this valuable resource. Previously, earth's relationship with Pandora and its inhabitants, the tall, cat-like, and very blue people called the Na'vi, was a more peaceful one. Scientists and educators had acted as emissaries to the planet, and ideas and culture and language had been exchanged. The crown jewel of earth's relationship with the Na'vi was the Avatar program, in which human DNA was spliced with Na'vi DNA in order to create vessels that looked just like the Na'vi and which could easily breathe and function on Pandora. Human volunteers in the Avatar program entered chambers that transferred their conciousness into the new Na'vi body, essentially making them men and women of two worlds. While sleeping in one body, their conciousness transitions back to the other. At first, the Avatars embedded themselves in the Na'vi society, learning firsthand the different facets of Na'vi culture. But then came Jake Sully, whose brother, a scientist , was set to take part in the Avatar program. Jake's brother was killed, since Jake's DNA is close enough to his brother's to operate his Avatar, he is recruited to take his place in the program. The catch is that Jake is no scientist - he's an ex-marine grunt who lost the use of his legs in combat. Jake's military background captures the attention of General Quaritch, a take-no-prisoners hardass who wants Jake to work for him on the side. Quaritch wants Jake to embed himself with the Na'vi, to make it all the easier for Quaritch and his men to remove them as an obstacle in their hunt for Unobtanium. In return for his services, Quaritch promises Jake that he'll help get his busted legs fixed - a procedure that's definitly possible in this future, but frustratingly, prohibitively expensive for a guy like Jake. This brings us to the obvious conflict - will Jake, who is becoming ever closer to the Na'vi (and to his Na'vi guide Neytiri), go through with Quaritch's plan and be a party to what is essentially genocide? Or will he turn his back on humanity and help protect the people who he has come to empathize and even feel as one with?
So that's the plot of Avatar in a nutshell, and while it has a lot of unique twists, at the end of the day it's a pretty basic, well-worn setup. And that's cool. I love big, archetypal stories, and I'm not going to sit here and go on about how Avatar's can at times seem a bit derivative. I mean, look, one of the year's best sci-fi movies was Star Trek, which was a remake of a decades-old idea. And I give Cameron and co. a lot of credit. They didn't do a remake, or a sequel. They spent a truckload of money to take a risk and make an all-new, never-before-seen story. That's awesome, and I wish we'd see more of it.
It's interesting though, because this was, afterall, a year that saw a scrappy little movie called District 9, shot on a shoestring budget, that arrived with little hype, yet that blew me away with a totally fresh feel, a kickass sci-fi premise, and balls-to-the-wall action. Avatar had more sizzle, but did it have the most steak?
I think one strike against Avatar is that the emotional beats of the movie are almost all plot-driven. That's cool, but it also speaks to the lack of great character moments (or character development, for that matter) in the movie. People talk about Star Wars, and hey, what moment do people remember most about those movies, when you get past all the spectacle? "Luke, I am your father." There's no equivalent moment in Avatar. Jake Sully is not really a Luke Sywalker-like everyman - he's a marine. Trained to kill, badass, stoic. That's a great character to have in a movie like this, but is it a main character? A hero? Sam Worthington has a natural action-star charisma, but Sam Worthington as a giant blue elongated alien? Not quite so much. And oh man ... Stephen Lang. Let it be said on the record that Lang is absolutely awesome in Avatar as General Quaritch. It's the kind of 100% kickass performance that makes you want Lang to be in every action movie, ever, from here on out. Lang impressed earlier this year in scene-stealing roles in Public Enemies and The Men Who Stare At Goats, but this is his moment. He's a comic book character come to life. 60 years old, silver-haired, but holy lord, still the most badass son-of-a-bitch in the universe, and with the biceps to prove it. Stephen Lang flat-out owns in this movie, and in a world of blue aliens and mystical creatures, there's something to be said for good old-fashioned badassery. James Cameron knows it too. If there's one thing he's always excelled at in his sci-fi movies, it's telling these big, science-fiction stories with a dark, gritty, action-movie edge. But this is where Avatar falls short of Aliens and T2. It's one thing when your Big Bad is an animalistic alien killing machine or a sinister computer system hellbent on mankind's destruction. But in Avatar, the badguys are ... people! And yet, Cameron paints us, the human race, with the same two-dimensional strokes of villainy as the Terminators. Lang is awesome, but his General Quaritch falls short of being a villain for the ages simply because he is a walking, talking cartoon character. His motivation? He likes killing stuff and blowing stuff up. His personality? Every redneck, hard-nosed General from every war movie ever rolled into one. Entertaining? Hells yes. A great character? If he was a lackey or side villain, definitely. But he is supposed to be Arch Villain #1, and yet, he's no Darth Vader.
And I hate to keep using the Star Wars analogy, but think of all the great side characters that existed in that universe, who gave it color, who provided comic relief, etc. In Avatar, the big Han Solo moment comes courtesy of Michelle Rodriguez, who again, seems suitably badass, but ... we know nothing about her character or her motivations. Why does she risk everything to help out Jake and co.? Who knows? Giovanni Ribsi is your typical corporate asshole - he's more concerned with what the shareholders think than of the wellbeing of an entire race of people. Potentially a fun character, but he never has either a great moment of scumbaggery or a great moment in which he gets his just-desserts. He's just sort of there. How about Joel Moore as Spellman, the geeky scientist who befriends Sully? Again, just sort of there to add some color and exposition, but no real moment to shine. The semi-blandess of some of these peripheral characters is aggravated by the lack of great dialogue. Movies like this one need those great one-liners that will enter into the pop-cultural lexicon, those moments of humor or heart that break the tension and just plain make you smile. Avatar's heroes and villains get off a couple of decent lines here and there, but the dialogue, like some of the characters, doesn't always rise beyond the cliche.
That said, the real standout here, character-wise, is - who else? - the queen of sci-fi action herself, Sigourney Weaver. Sigourney knows how to make the most of her part in this kind of movie, and she brings real heart and soul and character to the world of Avatar. Playing Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist hoping to peacfully study and work with the Na'vi and their world, Weaver just has that presence where you instantly believe in her character and want to root for her. Part of that lies in her on-screen history - because you know that even if Grace is a peacenik scientist, somewhere underneath most likely lurks her inner Ripley.
I will say this for Cameron, he is an absolute master when it comes to structuring an action movie. He knows how to moderate the pace and escalate the action towards a beautifully adrenaline-soaked and climactic finale. Avatar does a great job in this respect, and it's why the bloody and chaotic ending battle scene is so damn satisfying. It really does feel like the culmination of everything that the movie had been building towards. So many action films disappoint with anti-climactic final battles. Not this one. Cameron saves his best for last, and builds up to one hell of an awesome final showdown, featuring aerial combat, man vs beast brawls, hand-to-hand brutality, and much, much more. We've always known that Cameron can direct one badass action scene, and yep, he's still got it.
I should also mention the movie's sweeping score. I don't know if the music is as iconic as some other all-time action-movie, classics, but it definitely adds a lot to the film, and really accentuates the action in some of the movie's most breathtaking scenes. The sappy pop ballad during the ending credits I could do without though.
I should also reiterate - Avatar does have its share of amazing moments where the visuals work in concert with the concept at hand to create some genuine movie magic. There are darker, scarier moments that feel like classic Cameron - like when Jake first wakes up in his new Avatar body, and goes into a euphoric, out-of-control rampage. And there are the more etherial moments that highlight the beautiful and awe-inspiring alien terrain of Pandora, from neon-lighted flora and fauna to all the creatures big and small that inhabit its fully fleshed-out ecosystem. There's no question - there are dozens of scenes in Avatar that are amazing just to look at and absorb. And honestly, the visual density of the movie can be almost overwhelming at times. I felt like it wasn't until a good hour into the film that my eyes had even fully adjusted to the IMAX 3D. For that reason, I do think that Avatar is a movie that likely needs to be seen more than once, maybe even several times, to fully experience and appreciate. There is definitely that period where you are simply adapting to the enormity and scope of the images on-screen.
By most measures, Avatar is a landmark film. It's mesmerizing to watch, and entertaining and exhilerating from start to finish. On a surface level, it's up there with my favorite movie-going experiences of 2009. At the same time, while there's no doubt that the movie is a game-changer in terms of its visuals, in terms of story, it's merely very good. I found myself getting caught up in the roller-coaster-ride aspect of the action, but emotionally, I remained somewhat detached. I didn't have those moments where I wanted to yell out or pump my fist in the air or high-five my friends. I didn't love the heroes or love to hate the villains as much as I wanted to. I didn't ever feel like I did when Luke blew up the Death Star, or when Sam carried Frodo on his back to the peak of Mt. Doom. So no, Avatar is not on *that* level. But it is, indeed, one hell of a ride.
My Grade: A-