Unbelievable (Long review, one minor “spoiler”)

It was hard to believe that two hours and forty minutes had passed by the time this movie ended. This movie takes off right from the get-go, grabs a hold of you and drags you on a spectacular ride that leaves you breathless by the end. You’ve probably seen a few people say “it’s Dances With Wolves on an alien planet,” or “the storyline is too archetypal/predictable,” but those don’t scratch the surface. There’s so much going on in this movie, and even the shortest of scenes can carry so much weight if you’re paying honest attention to it.

One of my biggest concerns going into this movie was that there would be 45 minutes or more of buildup before you really reached paydirt. There wasn’t, and I don’t know what it was about the trailers that made me think otherwise. You barely get 10-15 minutes of introduction to the characters before Jake is logged into his Avatar and testing it out. Like you could see in the trailer, he’s simply thrilled to have working legs under him again, and Cameron did an absolutely phenomenal job of capturing what might have been a minor fact were this anyone else’s film. Just the look on Jake’s avatar’s face when he starts wiggling his toes is brilliant.

Nothing about this movie is simple; even when a scene appears to have little importance, the way Cameron has brought them all together makes each only a piece of what turns into a beautiful puzzle. The death and burial of an old Na’vi woman whose name is never revealed lasts all of maybe 8-10 seconds, and yet Sam Worthington’s voice-over during the part makes it have such a huge impact. It’s like the first time you see the creature in Alien: it’s only 6 frames but it sticks with you throughout the movie and beyond. And that’s the point here: people are going to talk about the visuals and your first instinct will be to think they mean the CGI, but that’s not the case. The visuals are stunning in every way imaginable; each small scene is important, every facet of Na’vi life that is shown carries some weight – particularly to Jake – and the amount of work put into their tails, ears, eyes, and the motion-capture used for their facial expressions was worth every penny.

The CGI is beyond phenomenal, and what Cameron has done here is kill any excuse by future movie-makers for having shoddy CGI. It’s seamless, and it’s hard to tell where live action ends and CGI begins much of the time – in fact, you won’t even realize you’re going from one to the other even when you go from the Na’vi to the humans and back. Even in those scenes where you have both humans and Na’vi on the screen together or even touching, it’s clean and beautiful and only multiplies the effect. I was fortunate to see this movie at the IMAX-3D theatre, and it was worth the extra money: all that talk about birds and insects and whatnot flying through scenes wasn’t just talk – it’s incredible to behold.

This movie may require the more faint of heart to bring a box of tissues with them. This is not the type of movie where someone dies and the main and supporting characters just go all crazy with rage and become ten times more fierce. Again Cameron has captured the grief surrounding the deaths of friends and loved ones with a deep intensity that is, at times, crushing (some of the scenes still bring tears to my eyes twelve hours later, and I don’t cry at movies). Referring back to the scene I mentioned earlier with the burial of the Na’vi woman – it’s very intense, powerful stuff, especially considering that the scene is seconds long and she’s never named; if you’re not getting an emotional jolt out of this movie then you’re truly missing out on half of its power.

On the way out of the theatre there were a few people complaining that it was predictable, even though they really liked it; the ultimate point is that Cameron has told a beautiful story, and despite the times when you go “Oh, I know what he’s going to do now,” it’s very easy to become attached to the characters, and care what happens to them. When people die, it hurts; Cameron has established all of the major characters to a point where you don’t look at them and think “This guy’s cannon fodder.” All of them are integral to the story, and even during the epic battle toward the end of the movie, it’s hard not to be moved by the casualties of even nameless Na’vi.

Cameron is very proud of this movie and he should be; considering his history of Aliens, Terminator, Terminator2, and Titanic, it’s hard to just look at something like this and say it’s his best – but I truly feel this is. As much as I loved Aliens (formerly my favorite movie of all time), it did not move me the way Avatar did. I doubt any other movie ever will.

DO NOT wait to see this on DVD or Blue-Ray; get to the theatre and watch this jewel of cinematography. If you can, see it on the IMAX-3D screen. You won’t regret it, and I guarantee that.

To parents wondering how children might handle this, the PG-13 rating is mostly due to language and the violence of the epic battle. There’s no sex in the movie, though it is mentioned and there is a sort of fade-to-black that’s confirmed later on. Last but not least, you do see Na’vi breasts from time to time but it’s done tastefully, rarely, and in such a way that it’s not throwing it in your face – if you’re not looking at the right part of the screen you likely won’t even notice.