James Cameron's Avatar, I can honestly say I wasn't interested in the least. Sure, I saw Titanic twice in theaters while in grammar school, but this new project he'd been working on for years held little appeal to me. The story sounded weak at best, and the attraction of some new technology did little to impress me. It got worse when the movie actually hit theaters and was a huge success, lots of friends and family saying I'd love it, just go see it. Well, that sealed the deal. I wasn't going to watch it. Most of a year later, I caved, getting it from Netflix this week. Final result? Good but not great movie, one that's definitely not one of the greatest movies ever made regardless of how many bajillion dollars it made in theaters.
Going in with as open a mind as possible, I wanted to give Avatar a fair shot...even if that voice deep down inside wanted me to hate it. I couldn't help it. I saw all this craze last winter and thought it was ridiculous how much fans got into it. I read stories that some fans were even going through variations of depression and withdrawals since they couldn't visit the fictional planet of Pandora where the story takes place. It just all added up. It was Harry Potter, Twilight, and any number of other popular series in pop culture rolled into one. Still, I buckled down and tried to enjoy it, and overall, I did. But that doesn't mean there weren't flaws along the way, major flaws.
Sometime in the future, a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is sent to the far-off planet of Pandora in place of his recently deceased twin brother. On Pandora, a corporation is struggling with how to handle the indigenous population, the Na'vi, a humanoid race of creatures, who sit on a hugely lucrative element needed back home called unobtanium. Through an extensive, expensive scientific process, Jake can become a Na'vi as an avatar, looking like them and eventually living with them. His superior, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), wants to learn about the Na'vi and their culture and way of life, but Jake receives pressure from the corporation's head (Giovanni Ribisi) and the head of security (Stephen Lang). Living among them, Jake begins to become one of them, even falling in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and is torn between his duty as a former soldier with his desire to do what's right. A fight is coming, and Jake's right in the middle.
Props to Cameron right off the bat because he basically invented a new form of technology to film this movie, taking existing motion capture software and making it ridiculously better. The whole movie is basically CGI (which I despise), but it's so good, so perfectly handled, that you don't even process that you are watching anything completed by a computer. If you can convince me CGI is a good thing, you've done your work. Point to Mr. Cameron. The movie is beyond gorgeous.
That's by far the strongest aspect of the movie, the first 90 minutes or so as Jake explores Pandora and all it has to offer. The storyline is similar to Dances With Wolves -- except in the future and in space -- so we see Jake learn how the Na'vi live from day to day in the jungles of Pandora with all its plant life and vegetation and various sorts of wildlife, some friendlier than others. The sequences that blow you away are phenomenal, like Jake flying through the suspended mountains that hang in mid-air, the exploration of the immense tree the Na'vi live in, and many more. It's all new to Jake as he takes advantage of his new legs, and it's all new to us as we see the ins and outs of this idyllic planet somewhere in the galaxy.
One of the rising stars in Hollywood, Sam Worthington is an ideal choice in the lead to play marine Jake Sully. He's been in Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titans, but he's still a new face here in Avatar. He needs to be a new face because if you've seen this guy/character in various other roles, it loses some of the appeal, the wonderment as Jake transforms into something else. Saldana is the equally strong-willed Neytiri who fights Jake but comes to love him. The technology that makes Saldana into a Na'vi is obviously something special, but credit to her for not getting lost along the way as she makes Neytiri a very strong female character. Weaver and Ribisi are solid in supporting parts, Lang is hamming it up for all he's worth as the evil security head, and also look out for Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi, and Joel Moore in supporting parts.
Now for the disappointing part of Avatar. With a budget of over $300 million, Cameron apparently didn't spend much on a well thought out, well written finished script. The dialogue is embarrassingly bad at times with some lines that made me cringe hearing them and more so now just thinking of them. I mentioned earlier the story is similar to Dances With Wolves. That's not true. It is Dances With Wolves with the Na'vi filling in for the Sioux and evil white men filling in for...oh, wait...that one is the same. Cameron clearly went to town on the special effects, and good for him because they're amazing, but at 162-minutes the movie feels incredibly long in parts and could have been tightened up or at least been better utilized.
The finale is a combination of all this good and bad as Lang and Co. launch an all-out offensive on the Na'vi and their villages. It is an inspiring sequence full of scope and a truly epic feel that is also limited by a heavy-handed ending that I hoped wouldn't be there. SPOILERS For awhile, it looks like the Na'vi are going to lose only to have a naturalistic, spiritual ending of the Pandoran ecosystem work together to fight off the intruders. SPOILERS It of course leaves the door open for a possible Avatar 2 -- God help us -- but doesn't ring true at all. But that's the movie. Lots of good and lots of bad, but in the end the amazing technology wins out.
Avatar <---trailer (2009): ***/****