It's hard to take that it's been twelve years since director James Cameron blessed the big-screen with an epic film (the last being the multiple Academy-Award winning Titanic). With a story fifteen years in the making, Avatar is finally hitting big screens. Is the movie the end-all, be-all of film-making? Is it the best picture of the year set to kick off another Oscar season where Cameron sweeps all the categories? Avatar may start off shaky, but it more then delivers with a strong second half.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a ex-Marine attempting to deal with a spinal injury that's confined him to a wheelchair. When his twin brother is killed before a big mission to the planet Pandora, Jake is asked to take his place. Once there the man is placed in the middle of a war between humans and the indigenous tribe on the planet, the Na'vi. The humans want the people to relocate in order to mine the planet for a mineral that sells for thousands of dollars. Being put into the body of a native in order to gain the tribe's trust and negotiate a resettlement, Jake sees this as a way to pay for an operation to give him back his legs. What ends up happening is Jake finding love with the chief's daughter and deciding to stand against the humans to save the people of Pandora.
There's no denying that Cameron saw this picture as his baby since every frame is filled with lush detailing and the amount of history the Na'vi has is epic. Cameron created the language the natives speak from scratch and the rich historical mythology about the Na'vi and their ancestors is both mind boggling and fascinating. All this detailing allows the audience to become immersed in Pandora and its people, mirroring Jake's journey. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and while I don't normally shell out extra for 3-D, this is something that benefits from the technology. Nothing is thrown at the audience, no gimmicks or tricks, it's more about having Pandora in front of the audience. The small bugs that float through the screen, the detailing at night, and the embers from human flamethrowers are all beautiful examples of how the 3-D allows small pieces to come out at the audience without resorting to “gotcha” moments like giant monsters in your face. This movie is also being shown in IMAX and it's highly recommended to see it there if you can. Seeing it on a regular screen doesn't allow for the expansive landscapes of Pandora to come alive, or the height differences between the Na'vi and humans. All of these different uses of technology allow for the true beauty of Cameron's visuals to come alive. Everything on Pandora is colorful and exquisite, showing not just the beauty of an alien planet, but nature as a whole. Fans of Titanic are in for a treat as the movie seems to mirror a few moments from that including an interesting falling tree shot that made me think of the ship tilting up from the director's past film. The second half of the movie, after Jake is established as a member of the Na'vi, is where the plot shines as everything happens fast and it's Cameron at his finest. There's brilliant speeches, a heart stirring musical score, and enough action for the die-hard action fans.
While this movie is in 3-D and animated, the acting was all legit and boy is it done well. Sam Worthington has grown from his American beginnings in Terminator Salvation. He's not as stilted and wooden in this, he's flexible, loose and a likeable guy. His Australian accent also doesn't slip in as much compared to his last film which is interesting since he made this before Terminator. Either way he's great and becomes a fine leading action hero. Zoe Saldana continues to prove her worth as an actress as the graceful Na'vi Neytiri. She's smart, headstrong and brave and Saldana's performance shines through. Sigourney Weaver steals all the scenes she's in as the committed Dr. Grace Augustine who merely wants to help the Na'vi. She's such an elegant actress and here you feel for her character who everyone casts aside as a bleeding heart. Weaver slips in a few Ripley-esque moments in terms of dialogue and delivery, and has the funniest moments. Stephen Lang is probably the best villain of the year, hands down, as the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch. He is just a murderous jerk that you love to hate. Starting out as a typical army stereotype, he gains Jake's trust and then exploits it to invade the Na'vi world. As he delves deeper and deeper into questionable activity to gain what he wants you're so wrapped up in wanting to see him get his in the end. Giovanni Ribisi also turns in a surprising performance in a smaller role as the corporate jerk Parker Selfridge. It's not the most compelling role but the actor pulls it off.
While things loosen up and find there way in the middle, the first hour is tedious. It's all exposition setting up the origins of Pandora and Jake gaining their trust, but it's merely a serious of tests for Jake with returns to the humans to chart his progress. It's all necessary so one can't complain too much, but there's nothing that makes you that interested. It isn't until the action and plot are firmly established and unfolding that things become heart-wrenching. A side note is that in the theater I was in there were many young children whose parents thought they were watching an animated film and nothing more. This is probably not recommended for children under ten as evidenced by the many five and six year-old kids who were running around the theater. There's a lot of violence and the plot will go right over their heads, don't think because this is animated that it's child friendly. The movie also seems a bit preachy at times, showcasing humans as environment destroyers in the name of consumerism. There's also a heavy religious mythology from the Na'vi that is a bit confusing and sappy in a few spots.
Avatar isn't the end-all, be-all of films but it's a spectacular epic that should be seen in the proper format, IMAX 3D is the best. The acting is solid, the story is unique and those visuals...they need to be seen to be believed. Avatar is one of the best-looking movies of the year and gets a 4/5.