To slightly rephrase a quote from James Cameron’s new endeavor, “Avatar,” “Well, what’d you expect, numb-nuts?”
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Recall that Cameron, in all of his bombastic arrogance, is the preeminent visual storyteller of our age, pioneering new technological innovations in each of his films while never sacrificing the narrative quality. Since directing “The Terminator” in 1984, Cameron has crafted an unblemished directorial resume of iconic blockbusters, from the thrill ride of “Aliens” to the action extravaganza of “Terminator 2” to the tear-inducing spectacle of “Titanic.” So with “Avatar,” did you really expect anything less than a colossal achievement?
Sure, it’s made with cutting edge technology, but “Avatar” has an old-school science-fiction mass appeal that makes it endearingly great. It’s one of those movies that everyone from your Santa-believing niece to your agoraphobic grandparents will watch, love, then drag all their friends with them to watch again.
“Avatar” roughly translates from Sanskrit as the “reincarnation of a deity in a physical form,” and the title packs a wallop of a double meaning. The film’s narrative is driven by this concept, with human minds controlling genetically modified bodies of the Na’vi, the indigenous population of the planet Pandora. But the audience also has an avatar of its own in the form of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, “Terminator Salvation”), a paraplegic ex-marine. Through Sully and his Na’vi avatar, we experience the heart-stopping wonder of the alien planet, we share Sully’s terror at its abundant perils and, finally, we understand the complex spiritual nature of Pandora and its civilization.
Cameron’s desire to create “Avatar” as an immersive experience led to his creation of brand-new cameras, revolutionizing the implementation of 3-D in film. Gone is the gimmicky use of this technology — the random pop-outs from the screen used only for shock value. The 3-D effects are used in “Avatar” to dissolve the invisible barrier between the audience and the screen, pulling characters and environments out of their typically flat dimensions.
Including the film’s brilliant use of 3-D, the list of what works in “Avatar” is endless. Let’s start off with the real star of the film: the planet Pandora itself. From the stunning suspended-in-air Hallelujah Mountains to the ethereal Tree of Souls, the film has gorgeous visuals up the wazoo. The effects that create the landscapes are so refined, they resemble an episode of the Discovery Channel epic “Planet Earth” more than computer-generated imagery.
Even the Na’vi, created through the generally reviled technology of motion-capture animation, look astonishingly authentic. Through new cameras, developed for “Avatar” alone, Cameron magically makes the giant, blue aliens appear as real as the humans opposing them.
Although the film’s archetypal “Pocahontas”-meets-“Dances with Wolves” story is quite predictable, it’s told exceedingly well. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, forbidden love and self-discovery. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that will tear your heart through incredible tragedies, then later have you cheering in jubilation.
These emotional shifts are especially evident during the climactic battle, a marvel of visual artistry and action choreography. The action in “Avatar” is never excessive or glorified, and it keeps in line with the film’s decidedly liberal-leaning politics. The anti-corporatism, pro-environment themes and parallels to the Iraq War keep the film relevant, but the messages are a bit too obtuse.
“Avatar” is more than a movie — it’s a jaw-dropping, heart-palpitating experience. It’s movies of this magnitude that redefine cinema; new precedents have been established so that motion-capture performances, 3-D and visual effects as a whole will never be the same again. After a 13-year absence since “Titanic” shattered box-office records and rocked the Oscars, James Cameron has returned with “Avatar” to reclaim his throne as the king of the world.