Writer/Director: James Cameron Notable Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore
Months leading up to the release of Avatar, talk shifted away from the incredible visual effects and it was replaced with talk of its colossal budget. The initial budget was said to be $200 million, but has been estimated to be as high as $300 million. Thankfully, James Cameron is a director who knows how to spend money and spend it well. A dozen years after Titanic – another Cameron film whose astronomical budget ($200 million in 1997 dollars) had insiders predicting it would be the “next Waterworld” – he returns to the landscape of feature film looking to change it forever. To say he has delivered a “game-changer,” as it has been described in the press, at this stage is a bit premature. Let future generations dissect its importance. Though, I can honestly say this is one of the most technically advanced and cinematically immersive films you’re likely to ever see.
Where blockbusters today are driven by special effects and not because of them, Cameron’s films have been a forerunner in pushing the boundaries of visual effects. Avatar may have just broken that boundary.
At 2 ½ hours, the film is a testament to Cameron’s unwavering determination to make something he’s wanted to make to for the last fifteen years. (Avatar was originally written in 1994.) Inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series from the early twentieth century, this science fiction tale borrows from Dances with Wolves, historical events like My Lai, and even films found in Cameron’s own catalog. The ingredients, when combined, make for a potent mix, ultimately strengthening a narrative that contains stilted dialogue.
The story is set on a moon about the size of Earth named Pandora – the year is 2154. The landscape is brimming with jungles, foliage as far as the eye can see. Earth has run out of oil, and now corporations are plundering the outer reaches of space in attempts to mine an alternative resource. The U.S. military acts as hired guns for the corporations and provide protection against any hostiles. On Pandora, there are encounters with a mysterious blue-skinned alien race called the Na’vi. Lithe and standing upwards of ten-feet tall, the Na’vi are growing more hostile towards the humans who want to mine a rock they call “Unobtanium.” Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) had developed a way to interact with the alien race through “avatars” (which are synthetic versions of the Na’vi controlled by humans). As avatars, she and other colleagues are able to move like the Na’vi and make use all of their five senses.
For an ex-marine like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is a paraplegic, the thought of running again is a pipe dream. But as an avatar, he can run, jump and do all those things he can’t when he’s confined to a wheelchair. Originally his twin brother was to take part in the avatar program, but when he died unexpectedly in combat, Jake took his place. Now he’s caught between a colonel (Stephen Lang) who wants him to learn as much tactical information as he can and Grace who is trying to rebuild the lines of communication with the Na’vi. When Jake becomes separated from the other avatars, he relies on his military training when placed in mortal danger. But even that isn’t always enough. He is rescued by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who, while knowing he’s an avatar, sees that Jake is touched by the Na’vi god, Eyra, which makes him a true spirit. Intent to learn the Na’vi ways, Jake gets mentored by Neytiri and he soon discovers he has more in common with them than his human counterparts.
Up until now, I’ve felt that 3D movies are too gimmicky and rarely enhance the viewing experience. 3D “tricks”, particularly those found in horror movies where objects are thrown at the audience, are a novelty, but provide only minor excitement. The first few minutes watching Avatar in 3D your jaws may dislocate and fall to the floor. Cameron incorporates 3D in subtle ways by increasing color saturation, so that the image isn’t as dimmed with glasses on. Thus helping to make for a more immersive viewing experience. After a short while you may even forget that you’re even wearing glasses. I know I did. Future directors and established pros could learn a thing or two with what James Cameron has done with 3D. Perhaps that is why Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson paid him a visit during production.
When I first saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day in theaters, I was only ten years old. I remember it because the reel broke and I couldn’t see what happened after Arnold Schwarzenegger went gun crazy with a minigun. Still, whenever I revisit the film on DVD or Blu-ray, I’m amazed at the effects and how they’re enmeshed in the story. They hold up particularly well in this day of heavy CG-rendered entertainment.
Eighteen years after that Terminator sequel, James Cameron’s return to the arena of science fiction is a culmination of everything he’s done as a filmmaker. The story is not very elaborate, taking the stranger in a strange land story archetype and having the hero transformed by the culture around him; but it is the way Cameron tells the story that leaves a lasting impression.
Sam Worthington continues his hot streak after Terminator: Salvation, which is an amusing coincidence that his next film would be working with the creator of The Terminator. And there’s some nostalgia to be had seeing Sigourney Weaver working with Cameron again after Aliens. Stephen Lang, who earlier this year appeared in Public Enemies, is memorable as the gung-ho colonel who would like nothing better than to snuff out every one of the Na’vi. However, the most impressive performances may be the Na’vi characters. They are the key to the film’s success. Though towering over the humans, they can stand opposite them and appear believable. Not since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings have we seen a CGI-rendered character that is able to transcend the medium.
Not counting his debut feature Piranha 2: The Spawning, James Cameron has yet to make a bad film. And he’s one of the few filmmakers to make sequels that eclipse the originals. Hopefully, he won’t have another Terrence Malick-like sabbatical and makes another movie soon. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out one of the most engrossing films of the year, maybe of all time. Avatar is flat-out entertaining.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!