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.

Directed by: James Cameron
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.

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3 Responses

  1. Lily Thompson

    Who cares what the critics say if the audience is holding its breath as the action unfolds in exciting screne after scene, and after the long attention span that is challenged every minute, you still don’t want it to end. This is a true document for peace and conservation, for human rights and mutual respect. As a critic, audience reaction is THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS in matters of entertainment, and I was thoroughly entertained.

  2. Jess

    Yeah, it looked great… but it was also offensive on a lot of levels.
    I don’t care how good your 3D movie looked, if your script has one-dimensional, stereotypical characters and piss-poor, hackneyed dialog a 13-year-old could’ve written, then it’s NOT a good movie. Cameron depended way too much on visual effects to tell his story, and forgot that every good movie needs decent dialog and characters. I’m sorry, but assigning everyone a stereotype does not count as characterization. Let’s see, there was:
    1. The military man who completely disregards ethics and human (and Na’vi) life in favor of pointless destruction because explosions are more fun than having a brain.
    2. The corporate suit who will stop at nothing to make a profit, even if it means destroying natural beauty to get at the “unobtainium” (GET IT?! BECAUSE IT CAN’T BE OBTAINED! James Cameron, like George Lucas, should not be allowed to name stuff).
    3. The jaded, yet uber-liberal scientist who comes with a patent disrespect for anyone in the military.
    But worse than the stereotypical characters (which are ridiculous, but only mildly offensive) is the portrayal of the Na’vi. Yes, stories about the benefits of conservation and the horrible things imperialism has done to aboriginal tribes the world over, are stories that need to be told. However, Cameron took Disney’s “Pocahontas”, “Dances With Wolves”, and “Fern Gully” and smashed it all together with HIS fictional approximation of how a native (read: NATIVE AMERICAN) tribe would behave, and it came off as patronizing and romanticized. I’m sorry, but the “noble savage” stereotype is just as harmful as the stereotype that all indigenous tribes are brainless savages. The storyline of an outsider coming to save an indigenous tribe from his own people has been done before (“Dances With Wolves”, “The Last Samurai”), and all it says to me in this iteration is that the natives were too weak and stupid to save themselves. It’s patronizing, it’s offensive, and as someone who’s studied the history of native North America, I’m tired of it.
    Be dazzled by the special effects and the realism of the CG characters (no denying it, they were amazing) if you want, but if you don’t have an original, respectful script to follow it up, then you don’t have a good movie.

    • Vince

      First of all, I don’t think the majority of the audience actually cared about the stereotypes, in fact, it helps them to emotionally connect with the protagonists much better, putting them as the bad guys in such a way makes it so that viewers can grab the viewer’s heart more effectively than say, if you were to make them all hugely developed and confusing.
      Also, unobtainium is an ACTUAL science term that scientists use to describe an imaginary element with properties that are special-beyond anything we have seen but which may be probable in other circumstances. Do your research before you make puns with these terms.
      Lastly, the movie didn’t make the natives weak. You say you’ve studied the natives of North America extensively, then look at the first contact with the europeans; It’s not so much that the Natives were weak, it was just that they were not prepared for this new foreign culture. Argue all you want, but you need someone who knows how to fight with guns and technology if you want to win against enemies who use guns and advanced technology.
      Honestly, the story was predictable at times, but if you want to use that against it, then you may as well scrub half the stories in the world, because they all have some things in common. That may be, but it doesn’t make them bad.


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