A recent television ad for "Avatar" boasted that the film "will change movies forever." That is not an empty promise. "Avatar" is an absolute triumph. Blending live-action and motion capture effects seamlessly, director James Cameron has created a stunning universe that feels as real as our own. Twelve years after conquering the known world with the Oscar-winning behemoth, "Titanic," Cameron has done it again. The self-proclaimed "King of the World" is back.
"Avatar" takes place in 2154, on the distant moon Pandora, a lush and tropical paradise that happens to be home to a large supply of a mineral (unobtanium) that Earth desperately needs to survive. The mining consortium that runs operations on Pandora has created an avatar program to help gain the trust of the distrustful natives, the Na’vi. Human "drivers" control genetically engineered bodies that combine Na’vi DNA with their own. The consortium hopes that the locals will be more willing to listen to people that look like them.
Starring:Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Wes Studi
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine, is the newest avatar driver. Upon arrival on Pandora, Jake agrees to gather intel for the military’s point man, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, chewing the scenery with gusto), in preparations for an assault on the Na’vi’s village, which sits right on top of rich vein of unobtanium. Quaritch promises Jake that he will get him the expensive surgery to repair his spine in return. While Jake begins his assignment dutifully enough, he slowly begins to question his orders as he falls in love with both Pandora and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the Na’vi’s chief.
None of this would work of course, if the Na’vi didn’t feel real, but they are a fully realized tribal culture. They have their own language (Cameron had a linguist create one from scratch), a rich history and a deep and spiritual connection to their planet. Through their deity, Eywa, they share a connection with every living thing on Pandora- from the trees and plants to the insects. The Na’vi embody the purity and beauty of their world.
While that attention to detail makes for rich storytelling, if the Na’vi didn’t look real then "Avatar" wouldn’t work. You could not buy Jake falling in love with Neytiri or expect an audience to emotional respond to her people’s plight if the Na’vi do not feel like more than just computer-rendered cartoons.
Thankfully the newly developed motion-capture technology is up to the task. Cameron was not just able to capture performers movements but a full range of expression as well. From smiles that light up faces, to frowns to screams of rage and defiance. And while the Na’vi look very alien, with their yellow eyes, tails, blue skin and lithe, almost catlike bodies, they are extremely empathetic and oddly beautiful.
Just as impressive as the Na’vi is Pandora itself. Teeming with life, the planet feels like a living, breathing ecosystem. From six-legged, wolf-like creatures, to entire forests that are bioluminescent at night, the world is absolutely beautiful. The layers and layers of detail demand repeat viewings on the biggest screen you can find.
None of that detail feels superfluous, though, and it never feels like Cameron is simply showing off how much money he could to spend on special effects (upwards of $200 million, according to TIME). In fact, he uses practical effects and actors whenever he can. The script is tight and "Avatar" flows beautifully, from its opening scenes of Jake arriving on Pandora to the epic battle between the humans and the Na’vi that takes up much of the film’s third act.
The action is clearly and excitingly shot. It never feels like Cameron is using tight shots to hide flaws in the effects. He shows the confidence he has in the world he has created by consistently putting as much detail on the screen as possible.
Much like "Star Wars" was when it first came out, "Avatar" is a game-changer. It represents not just a tremendous jump in special effects, but in using special effects to tell an emotionally engaging and vastly entertaining story. "Avatar" is big, epic filmmaking at its best.