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Avatar: Cameron Delivers Joyous Cinema

by Anne Thompson
December 11, 2009 3:22 AM
15 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

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. ]

Thompson on Hollywood

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.


15 Comments

  • Luke | July 12, 2010 10:32 AMReply

    rda, it's not a surprise that there would be such a large faction of people hating on Cameron.

    Some of these people are trying to find greatness where it just DOES NOT exist. Some of these people can't see true greatness when its right in front of them. As soon as the film industry starts to really analyze James Cameron's brilliance, the sooner we can start seeing great films from everyone again.

    But, from now until then, Cameron's techniques will be unmatched.

  • namaste | December 27, 2009 2:37 AMReply

    As we are more alienated from nature & our essential relationships with others, the story of the "civilized" man falling in love with the "primitive" people, culture & woman becomes more popular; e.g., Dances with Wolves & Samurai. We long to connect with the primal and to throw off the shackles of modern civilization and our commecial culture. namaste

  • rba | December 17, 2009 7:58 AMReply

    I've read a few reviewers who comment on terms like "unobtainium" or "flux vortex" (shades of Back to the Future perhaps? No.) and roll their eyes. What they fail to realize is that these are real terms used in the scientific community. A quick look at wikipedia would have cleared it up but I suppose that's to bothersome when trying to find fault.
    Another thing I see in some of the critiques is his supposed lack of awareness in the irony of using cutting edge technology to film a story about destroying the land and people - using cutting edge technology! That's not ironic. It's just using two different types of technology for completely different purposes. Wow.
    I suppose if he had filmed the destruction practically, as would have been done in the past, then it would be ironic. Of course now, thanks to him and others, everything can be done in the computer.
    It's just funny watching people try to nitpick and find some fault with him or any successful person who pushes the boundaries of what's possible. That usually says more about the critic and their own ignorance, than it does about the person they're criticizing.
    Cameron may not seem like a genius to some, but he's no dummy, and he's proven it time and time again.

  • Alec | December 17, 2009 12:14 AMReply

    This was the best interview I've seen with Cameron. I love how he spent most of the time speaking tech-geek about the making of Avatar. I've been waiting to here the real important stuff about the making of this movie. I'm even more excited to see this movie tomorrow night. IMAX 3D!

  • NJM | December 13, 2009 11:33 AMReply

    With the death of mainstream criticism caused by the tyranny of the PR machine, its great to read a review that is really on the money. Sure AVATAR is flawed but its still a rather enjoyable experience, quite beautiful in places, surprising in others and truly groundbreaking because Cameron uses the technology to tell a simple story with characters you can engage with. He seems to genuinely care about the audience and their experience of his films rather than just serving up a load of visuals. Isn't Cameron interesting because he is someone who is interested in the World outside cinema and explores themes and interests in his work; only a diver can create world's like Pandora and only an ex-truck driver growing up in the 70's can have such a love hate relationship with machines and even the military industrial complex? He has something to say, which tends to suggests he's actually an artist unlike the empty, bombastic, visual stylists who came after him and make "tent pole" films devoid of story and characters but based on toys or theme park rides. As for the flaws of AVATAR, sure everything is simple but I suspect that's because Cameron wants to play to as wide an audience as possible and realises that not everyone is as sophisticated as the cineastes who write blogs or reviews. Thank God someone who is as successful as James Cameron, still wants to be ambitious and take risks in a World that would happily pay him enormous sums to make another Terminator, Aliens or other franchise. Even if you don't like the film give him that. And I write this as someone who hated TITANIC with a passion.

  • cc | December 13, 2009 12:05 AMReply

    If by "smarter crtitics" he means Roger Ebert he just gave it 4 stars. Comparing it to the first time he's seen the 1977 Star Wars.

    I'm confused by the hate.

  • Andy | December 12, 2009 6:46 AMReply

    Hi Anne, long time reader and fan of your blog.
    Just now I was on the Hollywood Reporter website and there on the front page is Zoe Saldana in Star Trek and, wow!, in the flesh she makes Avatar look like a saturday morning cartoon. I'm so uninterested with 'photoreal' actors!
    (Also, in your review you say "This would have been impossible to do with any existing technology" - so with what technology DID they use then?!)
    -A

  • Cde. | December 12, 2009 5:42 AMReply

    "That said—I think this first wave of ‘praise’ is about to be met with smarter critics who expect more out of a film than pure visuals."

    The very definition of a condescending wanker.

  • alan green | December 12, 2009 4:52 AMReply

    the first wave of praise seems to still be rolling in with no end in sight. the 'smarter' critics better get with it.

    'praise'...in quotes. that's funny.

  • T. Wilson | December 12, 2009 1:57 AMReply

    What movie were you watching?? While visually impressive, 'Avatar's' story is generic and incredibly weak. Every character with the exception of Jake Sully is one-dimensional. And don't get me started on the dialogue. That said--I think this first wave of 'praise' is about to be met with smarter critics who expect more out of a film than pure visuals. My Grade: B- (and hopefully no Oscar nods other than the outstanding Vfx)

  • JRM | December 11, 2009 10:38 AMReply

    I'm really excited to see this. Not much else to say.

  • Sergio | December 11, 2009 10:31 AMReply

    Or rather "...DID at times APROACH a fifth grade level"

  • Sergio | December 11, 2009 10:05 AMReply

    No doubt I'm going to be the only person on the planet who was bored to death with this film and thought the story and dialogue was at times apprached a fifth grade level.

  • Mark | December 11, 2009 9:08 AMReply

    Wonderful coverage Anne, thank you.

  • The Bloofer Lady | December 11, 2009 6:08 AMReply

    The whole concept of digitally created characters is what held up Kubrick's A.I. for so long. Since he took too long to shoot, he knew he could never use a real boy because he'd physically change during the duration. So he tried animatronics, but it didn't work. Ultimately, he knew David would have to be CGI. But, as it turns out, that technology was a decade out from his death.

    I wish Spielberg would've waited instead of rushing to get it out in 2001 as a tribute to Kubrick, using Haley Joel Osment.

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