It’s been nearly two decades in the making. As far back as the ’80s, James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) was itching to turn his vision of ‘every science fiction book’ he had ever read into the ultimate cinematic experience. In 2005, he announced that Avatar would indeed be his next film, a technologically sophisticated combination of live action and computer-generated imagery that would change the landscape of motion pictures. Well, after four years, thousands of rumors, and several hundred million dollars in production costs, the sprawling outer space epic is finally here. True to his word, this story of humans invading a planet called Pandora is a mishmash of every speculative fiction theme committed to paper. It’s also, as hyped, a stunning masterpiece.
Handicapped Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), desperate to walk again, signs on for duty on a far-off planet. This distant world is the source of a highly sought after, and very expensive, mineral. Jake is assigned to participate in Dr. Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) ‘avatar’ project, a process that combines human and alien DNA into an interactive ‘being’ that looks like the planet’s native Na’Vi, but is completely controllable by the host. At first, Jake is merely an observer, discovering the magic, and danger, of Pandora. But when head of security Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) asks him to spy for his corporate bosses, our hero agrees — thanks in part to the Colonel’s promise of expensive surgery to repair his damaged spine. Soon, Jake is part of the Na’Vi tribe, learning about their culture and ways from a beautiful warrior named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). The closer he gets to them, the more information Quaritch gets — and the closer Quaritch’s mercenaries come to destroying the indigenous population once and for all.
At first, Avatar is a bit disconcerting.The lush landscapes, the primeval forests bursting with alien life, the gorgeously lithe Na’vi and their graceful yet strong athletic movements — it’s impossible not to marvel at the creative prowess involved here. Then, once you realize that none of it is real, that all of it — the backdrop, the creatures, the lead performers in a complex ecological allegory — are 100% fake, generated in some supercomputer, your brain starts to sputter. Cameron and his crew have taken the art of digital deception to a whole new level. Avatar is amazing. It pulsates and breathes, going from movie to immersive experience in the blink of a CG-eye.
This is a sumptuous film, overflowing with details and delicate touches that counteract the massive firepower and mechanical/animal menace on display. The expression on the Na’Vi’s faces, their fascinating day-glo vegetation, the beasts they contend with — and command — all have a naturalism that leaps off the screen. Cameron has clearly put everything he knows about directing into this film, making the two hour and forty-five minute running time quickly fly by.
Sure, the script has a few cheeseball lines, but what science fiction story doesn’t? Similarly, the performances are solidly within the context and demands of the narrative. Lang is wonderfully evil, while Weaver and Worthington deliver effective, sincere turns. Perhaps the best bit of ‘acting’ comes from Ms. Saldana. She has to make an animated extraterrestrial into a character you care about and root for — and she manages to magnificently.
Indeed, everything about Avatar reminds us of the old cliché about movies being magic. Every penny of its rumored elephantine budget blossoms on the screen in a way that will remain with you long after the final credits have rolled. In a year of uneven efforts and missed opportunities, Avatar upholds its promise. It is a great film.