James Cameron returns twelve years after drowning Leo and encouraging teenage girl to go to the movies over and over and over again with his latest project, returning to the sci-fi realm that he ruled with such talent before he sunk his ship.
Avatar stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who replaces his dead twin brother in a project on the far away planet of Pandora. The planet holds a mineral called unobtainium (snicker if you like) and an indigenous species called the Na'vi, a blue skinned, humanoid like creature that lives in harmony with the planet. Jake's mission is to control an avatar that was created for his brother. An avatar is a biologically bred Na'vi that is controlled by the mind of it's driver, which in this case is Jake. His mission, being led by Dr. Augustine (Sygourney Weaver), is to examine life on the planet and come up with a compromise between the Na'vi and their human visitors. Jake inadvertently stumbles into Na'vi life and customs, greatly pleasing his military and science superiors. The problem is that Jake, who feels what it's like to walk, fly, and love for the first time in a long time, begins to understand the Na'vi attachment to their planets nature.
Of course, when you look right at Avatar you can see the metaphors. Environmental destruction. The elimination and relocation of natives. Military maneuvers to achieve natural resources. Cameron juggles these without being too preachy. I'm not saying it doesn't come off preachy, but it's not as much of a sermon as you may thing. The sad part is that some of the messages in the film tend to bog it down a bit, causing a "we have to get this in" attitude even at the cost of the story. From a screen writing point of view this is not Cameron's best work. The film tends to drag itself down a bit as it plays out. It starts out great, gets a middle that slows to a crawl, and then picks up during the last thirty minutes. It's the middle that gets you.
The acting is great, considering most of the characters are digitally rendered. This leads into the effects. The special effects of Avatar are state of the art and reveal some breathtaking shots of Pandora and the Na'vi. This is probably the first film I've seen where I forget a being is just a bunch of 0's and 1's. Cameron has created a triumph of digital effects and 3D that will benefit the next decade of film making to a degree. The action sequences are first rate, as they always are in a James Cameron film.
So what is the verdict on Avatar? Is it a revolutionary film that will dictate how movies are made or is it Cameron's folly? No, I don't think it will be as successful as Titanic due to its running time and dull middle, but it is a film that steps ahead of the curve a little bit and gives us a glimpse of things to come. There's been a lot of comparisons between Avatar and Star Wars and how each film defined how movies were seen and made during their respective eras. Both films held great technical achievements with Star Wars being the standard bearer for decades after its release, but there is a defining difference between the two films. Star Wars had a very approachable story that pulled from various sources through centuries of myth and story telling to create a story that was easily approachable for kids and adults alike. You were glued to the screen as the events played out like never before. With Avatar, the story is hard to get to, especially if your mentality tends to lean one way or another. The story grabs you in the beginning, but fails to hold you in its grasp for the entire picture. The effects are center stage, and they should be praised for that, but the story tends to push you away a bit. You could also compare Avatar to Toy Story in that each film represented what was to come before it, but the story is what made a good effects film great.
Now don't get me wrong, Avatar is a good movie that deserves some praise, because when it picks up it is a very entertaining action piece and will mesmerize during the first quarter of the film and subsequent points throughout. It just tends to allow itself to slow down too much for a film of this genre. Avatar isn't James Cameron's finest work, but it's still good to have him back.