McGinnis: ‘Avatar’ is amazing, memorableWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
James Cameron is a director who lives by the adage, “Go big or go home.” His films have taken audiences from the farthest reaches of alien worlds to the mysteries of the deepest oceans, from the future to the past and back again. And best of all, he insists his films be about something: They’re not just spectacle for spectacle’s sake.
Now, Cameron has crafted perhaps his most audacious yet. “Avatar” is a rip-roaring action adventure with genuine ideas about colonization, spirituality and the harmony of nature. And the universe Cameron and his collaborators have created here is one of the most memorable in recent cinema.
Pandora, the alien moon which is home to the story, is an amazing place. It is lush and green, populated with plant life that looks familiar but foreign, floating mountains tethered by ropes and remarkable animal life lurking in every corner. These filmmakers spoil the audience with beauty, and I, for one, was grateful.
The story (no spoilers): It’s the 22nd century, and a human colonization is underway on Pandora, not because we could live there, but because of a rare ore which is on the moon in abundance. The major obstacle in humanity’s path is an indigenous culture called the Na’vi, a towering race of warriors with blue skin.
To interact with the natives, a scientific project headed up by the brilliant Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) creates synthetic bodies called avatars, which their operators control remotely. Each avatar is crafted from the DNA of the wearer, which is why it’s inconvenient when one of the operators is killed. To fill his shoes, his twin brother Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former marine, is pressed into service.
These early scenes establishing the story are richly complex — almost to a fault. It feels like too much information is being thrown at the audience too fast. If I had to guess, I’d say that Cameron had to sacrifice some running time (the film as-is runs 162 minutes), and decided to cut from these introductory scenes. But as a result, it feels almost too fast-paced early on.
The heart of the film begins as Jake uses his avatar to interact with a native tribe of Na’vi, in particular a female warrior named Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana). She helps bridge the gap between him and her people. Their relationship is key, and doesn’t feel forced or artificial in the slightest.
The Na’vi are a remarkable creation of special effects. They are completely computer-generated, but move with a heft and weight that one doesn’t often see in animated characters. At first, I marveled at the effects that created them, and then I forgot about them and just got lost in the story — as it should be.
Of course, the Na’vi and human races clash over the fate of Pandora, with the military led by the scarred-and-iron-jawed Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and it’s all headed for a slam-bang action climax. But Cameron knows how to deliver with the slam and the bang, and the movie’s core themes remain intact, as the action is in support of some genuine ideas. It’s impossible not to view its tale of occupation and perceived entitlement and think of the relocation of Native Americans — or even more contemporary examples.
These themes have been examined before in cinema, but what Cameron brings to the table is his talent for crating memorable universes, as well as a remarkably sure narrative hand that spins a very engaging tale. The film, as noted, is nearly three hours in length, and if anything feels too short.
“Avatar” is a triumph of storytelling, effects and imagination. In the years after “Titanic”‘s remarkable success, it began to seem as though Cameron may never make another feature, and when he did, the pressure on him to deliver must have been enormous. But he has. He went big, and succeeded. I just hope it won’t be another decade before we hear from him again. Movies need a lot more genuine grandeur these days.
NOTE: I saw the film on a good old-fashioned 35mm print, but many will want to see it on a 3D screen. Although I usually find 3D a pointless annoyance, I must admit I am curious to see “Avatar” in the format, if only to see to what use Cameron puts the effect. I must say the lush environs and visuals may very well be remarkable in the third dimension.
“AVATAR”: ***1/2 stars (out of four)
A 20th Century Fox Film, directed by James Cameron. Running time: 162 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.