“Avatar,” James Cameron’s $250 million-plus epic, caused chaos last night in the film world. It premiered in London and was shown to some press in New York. Everyone who saw it had to agree to an embargo on running stories or reviews until right before the December 18th release. Then everyone who’d agreed, reneged.
What’s all the fuss? Well, for one thing, the 3D effects are completely groundbreaking. And even though wearing the glasses, etc. can be a little annoying at times, it’s worth it. This is 3D as you’ve never seen it before. Small brightly-lit objects are so real you want to reach out and grab them. When the camera pans through the forest or against trees, the images in the foregound make you want to duck out of the way.
Avatar is a hybrid of live action and a lot ‘ a huge amount ‘ of computer generated graphics. Even though it can be very thrilling, the movie seems more like a video game at times than a film. In fact, the last “act” of the story is largely that. There isn’t tremendous character development or story. It’s mostly plot, plot, action, plot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The basic story is a little hard to explain especially if you’ve never used an avatar online or in a game. Essentially, Sigourney Weaver and some space-development people are trying to get onto planet Pandora. Humans can’ t breathe on Pandora ‘ populated by blue zebra-striped two-legged creatures and dinosaur-like monsters ‘ without an oxygen mask. So Sigourney’s team creates avatars who look like Pandorans. Then they put humans into virtual reality tanks, and the humans somehow act out through the avatar bodies and interact with Pandorans. No, it makes no sense, it’s science fiction, and kind of ridiculous. But this is not a Best Picture kind of movie in that sense. It’s a three bag of popcorn crowd pleaser. Don’t think too hard while it’s on.
Anyway, Sam Worthington, the Mark Hamill of this movie, plays the hero, Jake. He’s a paralyzed Marine vet, too, so his avatar adventures are very freeing. Sigourney reluctantly enlists him to get on Pandora and investigate their ways. He does, and, of course, comes to identify with them. He even falls in love with a blue Pandoran, played by Zoe Saldana. When the time comes for Sigourney’s group to start colonization, Jake, naturally, becomes the Pandorans’ leader. (One of my favorite things about Avatar Jake is that he insists on touching each new 3D object he encounters, always with a startling reaction.)
In the process of this, “Avatar” is revealed as a combination of several movies and stories we’ve seen before, from “Dances with Wolves” to “1 Million BC” to “Land of the Lost” and “Lord of the Rings.” There’s more than a huge sampling of “Apocalypse Now.” And there’s a strong eco message too about saving the planet, going green, and the lives of trees. What’s missing, storywise, is a lot of originality or humor. But there’s everything else: At one point the screen is filled with Africans, Indians, dinosaurs, and Smurfs ‘ all that’s missing is the kitchen sink. Cameron pulls out all the stops and then some.
There isn’t a lot of what you might call acting. Stephen Lang plays a cardboard cut-out villain with bulging eyes and muscles who is a little too laughable ‘ and seems like a CGI himself and not human. Cameron has never met a cliche he didn’t like; they are all here. Sigourney’s Grace starts out as a cigarette smoking toughie, and winds up mothering her charges. Inconsistencies abound. Worthington is not Laurence Olivier, or even Harrison Ford. But he’s good enough. At least we see him as human and Blue. Zoe Saldana is only Blue, and seems to be playing Angelina Jolie from “Beowulf.”
There’s going to be a lot of debate about “Avatar” re: the “is it a film or video game?” discussion. What it is is entertaining as hell. It’s a sure-fire award winner for technical things. On its way to boxoffice gold, “Avatar” will be an event more than anything else. Fans will want to see it just to realize what Cameron has accomplished visually. With 10 Best Picture slots, “Avatar” also seems destined for a nomination. But it isn’t “Titanic.” There’s no Kate and Leo. And overselling it may cause “Avatar” more harm than good. It’s got so many fantastic elements, that it has to be encountered for those without dwelling on its deficiencies.
“Avatar” is among the best of 2009, along with “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious,” “An Education,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger,” “Nine,” “A Single Man,” “A Serious Man,” “Up in the Air,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “The Last Station.” As an artistic and technical creation, though, it stands by itself.