The epic genre has been with movies since 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, which turned Hollywood into what it is today. Epics have always been audience pleasers by balancing action, romance, suspense, and enormous story arcs. Of course, they are the most expensive films to produce. Even adjusted for inflation, James Cameron’s Avatar was the most expensive film in history, costing $387 million, or about two Waterworlds. That, combined with his public desire to direct it since 1995 and his claims that it will revolutionize films makes Avatar one of the most hyped and anticipated movies ever. So, does it live up to the hype? You bet your long, blue tail it does.
Avatar is the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a down-and-out ex-marine who can’t afford to fix his paralyzed legs in the terrible economy of 2154. When his twin brother dies, Jake takes his place as a pilot of a lab-grown alien body on the distant moon of Pandora. The movie begins as Jake wakes up from a five-year cryo-stasis arriving at Pandora.
The architect of Pandora’s colonization is a Halliburton-esque corporation there to mine an unbelievably valuable ore. A small group of scientists has come along to study the native population of Neolithic aliens—nine-foot-tall, lanky, be-tailed, cat-nosed, blue humanoids called the Na’vi. Because the atmosphere is toxic to humans, the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), created the Avatar program, which uses the aforementioned alien bodies to interact with the Na’vi, ultimately trying to convince the Na’vi to let humans mine in peace.
When the corporation discovers that one of the Na’vi tribes lives on atop the largest ore deposit on the planet, blood-hungry Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the leader of the corporation’s military contractors, singles out Jake Sully to be his eyes and ears inside the tribe. Quaritch will pay for Jake’s leg repair if Jake can get the Na’vi to leave peacefully, or at least if Jake can get enough information so the contractors can easily blow the Na’vi to Na’vi Hea’ven.
Only one problem, after Jake’s avatar runs into Amazonian-alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the forest, she brings him home with her when she sees an omen of his importance. The clan leader, her father, insists that she teach him the ways of the Na’vi, as they have been aware of the Avatar program for some time. Not only that, but some of the Na’vi have learned English, making things slightly easier for Jake and for the audience.
Jake, of course, learns the ways of the Na’vi, gains their trust, falls in love with Neytiri, reports all his information back to Quaritch, and is caught between duty and desire, eventually choosing to side with the Na’vi and stop the corporation from bulldozing down the enormous tree in which the Na’vi live.
So the story is pretty trite and predictable, as is much of the dialogue, but it is still effective. Cameron never had any aspirations to make this Pulp Fiction in Space; he said he wanted it to have global appeal. Avatar might be the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. Filmed in digital 3D IMAX, every single frame of this 60% CGI behemoth is jaw-dropping. From the bioluminescent forests to the floating mountains, Pandora’s landscape could have been the star of this film, if the CGI characters weren’t equally as gorgeous. Even though I have seen many a CGI character, I was still blown away by the attention to detail in the facial expressions of the Na’vi, and by the end of the movie, I was sure that Cameron had found some nine-foot tall blue people to play the roles. And don’t forget about the 3D—the glorious, succulent 3D—which was so lifelike and unobtrusive that it made regular life look two-dimensional. It alone is worth the price of admission.
What really separates Avatar from the most special-effects romps is that each character is fully realized, each plot-twist is logical and necessary, and each second is filled with artistic passion and love. Despite the cliched dialogue and story, this movie is deeply moving and emotional, and never patronizing the audience. This is the blockbuster movie that so many others strive to be. Not only is James Cameron a master of knowing exactly which notes to hit, he hits them all here brilliantly; leaving the viewer, at the end, thirsty for the inevitable sequels (two are already planned). There is not enough space here to go into detail about all the movie’s technological achievements or themes, so just go see this movie, preferably in 3D IMAX. Not only is it a near-perfect, instant classic of an epic, but someone’s got to help James Cameron make back his money.
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: James Cameron
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 161 minutes