Posted on 12/20/09 04:50 PM
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore..."
That line originated in an escapist fantasy that marked a turning point in the way technology was used to transport audiences to places of wonder and imagination. 70 years after the Wizard of Oz helped movie goers escape the turmoil of a economic hardship and a world at war far across the ocean, James Cameron's Avatar comes at a time that is eerily reminiscent of 1939. Like its fantasy antecedent, Avatar also uses technology -- while not the first of its kind -- in ways more effective than any movie ever has. The result is an adventure that draws you and in and keeps you fixated on the screen for more than 2 hours, and helps you forgive that the screenplay is neither fresh, nor particularly sophisticated.
Whether you know only about Avatar through its trailers and commercials, or you have been following its production for the past 15 years, you can easily summarize the plot in one sentence: A crippled marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) travels to a distant planet called Pandora, a world of rich and dangerous biodiversity, where he must inhabit the body of a alien hybrid avatar in order to make contact with the planet's indigenous population, the Na'vi. The film's central premise throws in a love affair between Jake and a Na'vi huntress named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) for good measure. There are other human characters, like a tough-gal scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a bad-ass pilot (Michelle Rodriguez), a corporate weasel (Giovanni Ribisi), and a crusty Colonel (Stephen Lang), but most of these characters are established in broad, sweeping strokes, and no more than two-dimensional at best. That's where Cameron's folly is the most apparent. And that's where my criticism ends.
The rest of Avatar is a lush, spectacular masterpiece so meticulous in its detail and so impressive in scope, that I found it quite easy to give in to the lure and just have the time of my life. Cameron manages to imbue his protagonists, Jake and Neytiri with just enough depth to make you care about them and to feel every moment of joy and each sting of heartache. The performance capture technology that brings the Na'vi to life is nothing short of breathtaking and is sure to earn the movie an Oscar in special effects and set the bar for all CG rendered performances to come. The flora and fauna of Pandora are so detailed, I will need to see the film three or four more times just to feel as if I've seen it all.
Finally, James Cameron proves that he is a master of the modern action spectacle by delivering thrilling set piece after thrilling set piece. One sequence midway through the film, reminded me of the visceral horrors of watching the twin towers fall on 9-11, but since it's unclear whether that was the intention of the scene, it plays broadly enough not to be exploitive. The epic battle that takes place at the end of the movie is simply the best sequence put on film in the past decade. Cameron is a master at choreographing action in ways that allow the audience to understand everything they are seeing on screen, and not only that, but to actually CARE about what is happening.
If you see Avatar on the big screen, see it in 3D. The 3D used here is not showy, not gimmicky, and not intrusive. It enhances the story and creates a window into the world that Cameron details. My single favorite use of 3D in Avatar is a basic shot of Neytiri drinking rainwater out of the leaf of a giant plant.
If you don't see God in the details of that moment, you never will.