James Cameron is a force of nature. His movies have an all-encompassing, ambient power of their own. The kind of power that makes a James Cameron movie a bigger deal than everything else. Avatar is his biggest yet. Every Cameron trope is out in full force: Bad-ass chicks, space marines, over-the-top action, and a sweeping love story. Avatar is in many ways an amalgamation of everything that makes James Cameron a unique voice in Hollywood. Elements of Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and Titanic are distilled here into a visionary masterwork of classic epic filmmaking and cutting-edge technology.
Avatar’s ambitious story follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he travels to the rainforest planet of Pandora to replace his late brother in the Avatar program, which allows certain humans to inhabit a body that resembles that of Pandora’s native humanoids, the Na’vi. The leader of the program, Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), hopes to use avatars to peacefully interact with the natives. Meanwhile, others, including the greedy CEO, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the military leader, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) look to exploit the Na’vi for a precious resource called unobtanium. Jake Sully is caught between these two worlds when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a blue-skinned Pocahontas who introduces him to her culture.
Jake’s inner conflict drives Avatar’s story, and structurally, it works. Yes, it borrows a lot from Dances with Wolves. Learning from and becoming part of another culture is nothing new, but Avatar presents this classic tale in a fresh way. As a paraplegic, Sully’s avatar allows him freedom. It gives him a genuine reason to view Na’vi life as an opportunity to start anew. I can buy it. And once the two sides of him finally clash, the power of that conflict really hits. It’s a tangibly large story. Epic and engrossing. The effectiveness of that simple story, well told, of connecting with your supposed enemies is why I resent the disingenuous love story Cameron decided to put front and center.
Before I get to the lavish praise of Avatar, which I consider one of the most special movie experiences of the century, I must address my one nagging grievance. The love story, the Neytiri character, and all the preachy “bio-spiritual” fluff that comes with her, irked me. James Cameron has never been known for subtle characters, and Avatar doesn’t change that. Dr. Augustine is a tough-talking scientist with a penchant for cigarettes, Colonel Quaritch is a hard-as-steel military grunt with a giant scar across his face, and the CEO practices golf in his office. The point is, these are bold-faced archetypes. Neytiri is no different. She’s a tree-hugging, flower-power philosopher. That’s fine, but Zoe Saldana’s performance has none of Stephen Lang’s towering vitality or Weaver’s cool confidence. It’s all screeching and posturing. She’s shrill and angry, and her spirituality quickly devolves into a full-on castigation of the evils of military conquest and deforestation. Shouldn’t this spiritual guide be a little more even-keeled? I never believed that Jake would fall for her. Compared to Cameron’s other movie romance, Titanic, Avatar seems manufactured. Neytiri is less a character than she is a face on which to pin the movie’s heavy-handed message.
With that out of the way, let’s get to what makes Avatar the single most monumental cinematic achievement of this generation. James Cameron creates, in Pandora, the most rich, realistic, and fully realized fictional world in the history of cinema. From a design standpoint alone, the imagination ingrained in the animals, plants, and vehicles is absolutely staggering. Pandora is miles ahead of everything else in terms of diversity of life, and what’s really astounding is that with all these varied alien elements, Cameron somehow makes this place real. From the high-tech, lived-in military bases to the elaborate Na’vi culture, with its palpable sense of history, Cameron’s attention to detail in Avatar is revolutionary.
So too are his technical innovations. The movie is remembered most for it’s pioneering use of 3D, and rightfully so. Implemented alongside the uncanny photo-realism of the Na’vi’s, the creatures, the mountain-sized trees, and the bio-luminous plants, the 3D is more transporting than anything I have ever seen. All the superlatives in the world can’t completely do justice to the Weta team that brought Cameron’s gargantuan vision to reality, so I won’t bother. The truly commendable aspect of Avatar is not that the special effects are so sophisticated, but that you forget that what you are watching are indeed special effects. Avatar uses 3D to immerse rather than amuse. You are absorbed in the world of Pandora so completely, that it cuts across the divide we have with most films. You don’t watch Avatar, you live it, feel it, experience it.
That feeling of absolute immersion is what defines Avatar. It’s a movie, with plot, characters, and a story, but that stuff doesn’t matter as much as the physical sensation it creates of actually being in a brand-new world. It’s true, Jake Sully is less important than Pandora. But those who dismiss Avatar as simply “pretty pictures” are undervaluing the impact of James Cameron’s image-making. Avatar creates visuals and utilizes technology so well, it makes the audience feel like part of the film. Some people take for granted just how significant that is. Others take for granted James Cameron’s direction. Here is the single most ambitious movie ever conceived, and Cameron handles it all with the confidence of a world-class chef. This guy is not intimidated by anything. He is an elite director; the world’s leader in action and world-building, and miraculously, he keeps getting better! Avatar is his most accomplished film.
Avatar’s success lies in its ability to engross every kind of moviegoer. Science fiction geeks and action aficionados can revel in some of the most thrilling action scenes ever put to film (The final battle alone is more exciting than 99% of blockbusters before or since), sentimental romantics can connect to the classic story, and even those who don’t connect to either can experience the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of visiting Pandora. James Cameron has made a picture that defies comparison. There is not another movie that reverberates with the ethereal power of Avatar. Because Avatar is beyond movies. The film is overwhelming; An event imagined and shot on a scale bigger and bolder than anything I’ve seen. Assisted by James Horner’s majestic score and Mauro Fiore’s epic cinematography, Avatar totally envelopes us in an exotic world. An original masterwork of popular entertainment, Avatar deserves its spot as the biggest hit in movie history. This is truly Cameron’s magnum opus, a movie that burns with boundless passion. A classic that thrills as it inspires awe.