James Cameron's Avatar takes you to an exotic world, Pandora, seen through the sad eyes of paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he falls in love with tribal princess Neyteri (Zoe Saldana) and her people, the Na'vi.
Avatar is a joyous celebration of story craft and the visual possibilities of cinema. Cameron had set his sights on taking the technology of film where no one had gone before. And he delivers. Avatar is stunning. Cameron and Peter Jackson's Weta Digital (led by VFX master Joe Letteri) have changed the way movies are made.
Disarmingly sincere with its ecological message of being one with nature, Avatar is in tune with Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, Ed Zwick's The Last Samurai and Terrence Malick's The New World, in which a stranger/outsider falls in love with an alien culture. Avatar's fantasy is that this gimp G.I. is able, through his nine-foot blue avatar, to become a powerfully athletic Na'vi warrior, taming and bonding with Pandora's mighty direhorses and pterodactyl-like flying banshees. And he gets the tribal princess. Cameron was influenced by Burroughs (as well as a 1957 Poul Anderson story, Call Me Joe), and with this film gets a jump on Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton's upcoming live-action John Carter of Mars.
The start of Avatar is breathtaking, as James Horner's tribal music rises over a 3-D planet seen from above, all mist and tree tops. Like George Lucas with the Star Wars universe, Cameron and his designers have imagined all the flora, fauna, creatures and tribal cultures of Pandora, which glows iridescent at night, much like the deep oceans Cameron has explored in his 3D science docs. It's hard to believe that this world is entirely CG.
[My half-hour video interview with Cameron is on the jump. ]
Sully tells his story via video diary voiceover, as we see how he comes to Pandora, to replace his late twin brother and bond genetically with his avatar. Sully is no scientist, as Sigourney Weaver's biologist Grace Augustine makes clear. "Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn't do," he retorts at one of her digs.
In this movie, greedy money-grubbing humans (led by nasty Giovanni Ribisi) and their war and mining machines are the enemy, while the heroes celebrate a spiritual worship of nature and its circle of life. But the head of security for this mining outpost (well-played by Stephen Lang) sees "dumb grunt" Sully as one of his own and enlists him to spy for him on the natives. He needs them to move off a rich spot for mining "unobtainium."
Cameron plays with scale and hardware as giant caterpillars, flying machines and robot suits dwarf puny humans who will die if they breathe Pandora's noxious air. He signals the battles to come as a mining vehicle rumbles by with arrows sticking into its giant wheels. Neurotoxins in the arrow tip will stop your heart in one minute.
Cameron is a master at quick efficient storytelling. You know that every detail is thought-out and will pay off down the line. Yes, we see those giant robotic amp suits in action, as well as spears and bow and arrows. Deep in the jungle, unseen Neytiri aims one at avatar Sully, who was chased into the rain forest by a vicious viper wolf, but she pulls back when a glowing white wood sprite alights on her arrow. A sign. "They are the seeds of the sacred tree, very pure spirits," she tells Sully, and decides to take him to her family. They accept him into their tribe and teach him their ways.
The central section of the movie, as Sully becomes a warrior and falls in love with Neytiri, is sheer magic. Cameron sweeps you into deep canyons on the back of the swooping banshees, past "floating" mountains and cascading waterfalls. This would have been impossible to do with any existing technology and yes, Cameron has changed the game, yet again, and has reset the cinema standard that must now be met.
Peter Jackson's Weta, which set the bar with The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, is at the top of the digital effects pyramid. (See my Popular Mechanics story and video Cameron interview for more details on how this movie was made.) ILM helped with the VFX, but Weta did not let them get close to the leaps they made---flogged by Cameron's sky-high demands--on facial performance capture. Yes, the human performance of the actors, the subtle flicks of emotion and expression, come through. This was the threshold that had not been passed, and now it has. Now there really isn't anything that movies can't do.
75 % of this movie is all-CG, with CG characters in a CG universe--not a mix of miniature models and live action. This is as animated as a Pixar movie but utterly photo-real. Weta and Cameron put off until the end of the shoot the final battles, when the human's flying war machines fight the Na'vi's flying banshees. It took over a year to figure out how to combine live-action humans with CG aircraft and creatures in a CG environment.
Truth is, Cameron is a brick-and-mortar storyteller. As Weaver has said, he's in touch with his inner 14-year-old, and instinctively knows what moviegoers all over the world want to see. While it is unlikely that any movie will unseat Cameron's last fiction feature, 1997's Titanic as the biggest blockbuster of all time ($1.8 billion worldwide), Avatar will be huge; I'll bet this picture, which defines "event movie" and probably cost $300-million (more than any other film) gets past a billion worldwide.
But the storytelling can be lunky, the dialogue at moments, risible: "We're flying into the flux vortex" and so on. And there are silly bits in the film's too-long last third, when the battle engages and Sully rises up as the most powerful warrior the Na'vi have ever seen. But hey, these are quibbles. Any self-respecting cinephile will have to see this film, not just once, but over and over again.