Some of you may have read my preview of James Cameron’s Avatar following a nationwide screening of 15 minutes of footage in IMAX about four months ago. “Avatar Day”, as it was officially dubbed, ended up dividing many film fans with some moderately impressive 3D, but scenes that offered very little exposure to a central, character-driven story. I, like many others, came away from that footage and the teaser trailer severely disappointed and left not expecting much from the film.
I’m glad to say that I was wrong.
Cameron went on to release a somewhat stronger and more confident trailer during the fall season but it was only a small taste of what was actually coming. Make no mistake: the story of Avatar is almost 100% derivative of stories such as Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and The Last Samurai, among others. I came away merely liking the film upon my first viewing, but after removing all pre-conceptions and seeing the film again on its own merits, I had to finally admit it: Cameron has molded a sci-fi adventure with a story that is overly familiar, but lots of fun.
What’s more is that the technology behind the film, the brainchild of James Cameron himself and Peter Jackson’s (The Lord of the Rings director) WETA visual effects studio, has produced motion-capture performances just as realistic as Gollum and King Kong. The “mo-cap” techniques, like those characters, thrive on the fantastic performances by leads Sam Worthington (the film’s reluctant hero Jake Sully) and Zoe Saldana’s Ney’tiri. By keeping the “human” element the core value of the film’s narrative, it is very easy to care about them as characters, an aspect missing from most CG-driven films.
The world of Pandora is a luscious and rich environment that acts as a main character itself and this is perhaps where Cameron’s biggest achievement comes. There is an organic connection to this world through the main characters that immediately immerses the viewer and suddenly the technology becomes irrelevant. The film’s innovative 3D cameras were built in tandem with the purpose of exploring this wholly original alien planet resulting in the most fluid and natural-feeling 3D that any film has ever come close to. That said, it’s still an experimental medium and may not be for everyone. Fear not though, the film’s heart still succeeds in a 2D conventional 35mm viewing.
Stephen Lang also deserves credit for his charismatic performance as antagonist Colonel Quarritch, the leader of the human military invading Pandora in search of a precious and valuable mineral. Of note though, Cameron’s script is predictable with a fair share of choppy lines and the pace of the film in the first half hour admittedly starts off shaky before coming into form and growing more fluid over time. This is mostly due to some choppy and rushed editing during the exposition but these are minor issues that are eventually resolved.
Ultimately, the thrill, beauty, and heart of this film (along with James Horner’s best film score in nearly a decade) mark it as one the greatest adventure films to hit the big screen in years. There will inevitably still be some over-praise of the film’s place among classic works, but it’s most significant steps forward are ones that future movies will benefit from in a similar way that only Star Wars, Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings affected cinematic technology. Whether this film ages as well or is as widely-beloved as any of those films can only remain to be seen, but if you strip away the five-star qualities one is left with a three-star narrative. For now though, Avatar and its visually dazzling wonder require all film lovers to experience the cinematic journey that James Cameron has crafted.