produced by: James Cameron & Jon Landau
directed by: James Cameron
rated: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)
runtime: 162 min.
U.S. release date: December 18, 2009
When writer/director James Cameron released the first underwhelming trailer for his much-anticipated new film, he had already proclaimed how the special effects and 3D technology would change the way film is made and viewed. With that kind of build-up, this was to be a movie like nothing we had ever seen before.. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case here. Cameron the director is right, this is a stunning film yet Cameron the writer forgot to proclaim just how lazy he was as he plotted out his intergalactic eye candy.
Clearly, the twelve years it took to make “Avatar” all went to the CGI and art direction. Like George Lucas before him, Cameron gives us lousy dialogue with amazing visuals, this time with a story that has been told time and time again.
The question now remains whether or not Cameron’s visual storytelling can make up for such an obvious lack of originality. It’s been over a week since I saw it in 3D on opening weekend with a packed and excited audience. As I watched it, I felt enraptured. I felt like this was the best use of 3D I’ve ever experienced (and I’m generally not a supporter of 3D) but I couldn’t help but notice many flaws.
I knew going in how folks were saying it would be “Dances with Wolves” in outer space but I also saw “The Last Samurai” and “The Mission” with traces of “The Lion King” here as well as “She’s All That”. Currently, the box office shows that this hardly matters and will have little effect on the film’s eminent success. The more distance I have from my viewing, the more disappointed I am in the story but that won’t stop me from recommending this film. As a fan of the genre, it’s kind of hard not to.
In the year 2154, mankind has reached for the stars, specifically the abundant world of Pandora. An aptly-named exotic moon filled with a dazzling array of unharmed plant and animal life, it’s a biologists dream. Unfortunately it’s also filled with a sought after mineral named Unobtanium (no, really), making it a dream for industrial miners’ and the mercenary guard dogs they employ, as well. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled marine who happens to be genetically compatible to an artificially created Avatar used to interact with the Na’vi, the planet’s indigenous people. It was designed for his twin brother, who recently died in battle, yet he’ll do despite his jar-headed thickness.
After becoming acquainted with the use of a fully mobile body again, albeit a large blue one with a tail, we become just as awestruck as he is with the beautiful world he must infiltrate. His mission isn’t made very clear. He’s told by the lead gung-ho, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), that he must gain the natives trust and find out everything he can about this sought after resource. Sully is then to report back and then what? Who knows? It doesn’t matter since we obviously know what will happen. We get the sense that regardless what “negotiations” could be made with the Na’vi, the corporation backing these mercs will be obliterating anyone in the way of their goal.
A viewer sitting in the theater literally feels immersed in this world, at least in 3D. The environment becomes alive and is a spectacle to behold. It’s hard to imagine it would have the same effect in 2D. It’s a film that is moreso a sci-fi/fantasy than a straight-up sci-fi film and Cameron’s attention to every minute visual detail is what sells it all.. Cameron and crew have created a world that interacts and flows with everything in it. He’s put just as much effort into all the nuanced elements as he has into the big stuff. Never at any time did I think anything was fake or overdone which could have easier taken me out of the film. Instead, it was the lame dialogue and unforgivable plot flaws that pulled me out. Now, Cameron is not known for his amazing screenplays, but that didn’t stop me from hoping from something unique.
For the most part, all of the characters are one-dimensional since the look and feel of the film is the main star. Zoe Saldana really got into the physicality of the role yet her character is best when she isn’t relegated to tour guide for Sully’s avatar. Lang fits the role of an obsessed mercenary yet his lines become laughable as his actions become all too predictable. Would it be so hard at the end for just one of these hard-nosed military guys to realize the devastation they are causing? Maybe Cameron is saving that for the sequels he has already has planned.
Another glaring sign of laziness that’s hard not to notice is how Cameron rips himself off, copying and pasting other characters and concepts from his previous films. As idealistic scientist, Grace (Sigourney Weaver) who is concerned for the preservation of Pandora and its inhabitants, I couldn’t help but think of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s wonderful role in “The Abyss”. Then there’s also the corporate hand puppet Giovanni Ribisi plays named Selfridge (nice name) who resembles Paul Reiser’s role in “Aliens”. I can go on about how the tough chick ex-marine, Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) is similar to Vasquez from “Aliens” and Quaritch is basically the crazed marine Michael Biehn played in “The Abyss”, but maybe it’s just obvious to those familiar with Cameron’s work. Thing is, he already knows he has a fan base so why not give us a more unique story?
Some fans of “Avatar” feel that the story and dialogue isn’t what the film is about. There are even those who feel that because the story suffers, the film is then deemed incomplete. I don’t subscribe to that. A film can standout visually and still be entertaining despite a lazy story. That being said, it’s a great movie for kids ages eight and up (McDonald’s feels the same way) to get lost in. I’m curious as to how a film that is meant to be a theatrical experience will play out come DVD time.
Will Cameron wait 10 years to revolutionize the home viewing experience as well? I’ve always enjoyed his work and had a good time here but I hope Cameron doesn’t get in the way of whatever he tries to do next. Time will tell. For me, “Avatar” remains an unforgettable visual experience with a forgettable story.