1 : a work done with extraordinary skill; especially : a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement
If you want to go by the definition above at its most cut and dry, Avatar could be considered James Cameron’s masterpiece. It’s the culmination of his career’s work, carries many of the signature throughlines and trademarks the director is known for, and seems to be a punctuation mark on a career filled with substantial genre milestones. Cameron’s a serious talent whose attention to detail and militant approach to his work has been a divisive and vital part of his work and Avatar represents the man exorcizing seemingly every creative demon in his being with almost pinpoint accuracy. This is the work of a man possessed, a vision and execution so singular that it’s hard not to be awestruck by the depth of it. From the effort devoted to the flora and fauna of the film’s world of Pandora to the intrinsic technical detail bestowed on the human aspect of the movie to the sheer force of will and near lunacy it took to create the equipment to make and project the film there is no doubt that Avatar is a work done with extraordinary skill and a supreme intellectual and artistic achievement. The word masterpiece may be too strong or it may be the only word to properly describe Avatar.
More than The Lord of the Rings was an extension of its auteur and more than The Matrix was psychically linked to its duo of filmmakers, Avatar is hardwired to its creator in a way films of this size simply cannot be due to reality and the nature of the business. But it is. That’s why the film took so long to reach screens. That’s why it apparently may be one of the costliest films ever made if not the costliest. That’s why on many levels this is an impossible dream of a film, something that could never meet expectations or justify its own existence under the weight of its ambitions.
But it does and make no mistake, this is a film worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. It’s epic, visionary, breathtaking, and as immersive as any tentpole film in recent memory.
And no trailer, teaser, or sizzle reel can do it justice until you see it living and breathing on a very big screen in 3-D. As I sat in the theater my doubts, suspension of disbelief, and cynicism melted away as Pandora came to life and took me in her arms.
Avatar is not the future of storytelling or the reinvention of the wheel. It’s pulp, but pulp done with the best toolbox Hollywood can offer and pulp created by someone who knows and loves pulp like very few others. It has as much in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs as it does with Dances with Wolves. It has elements of the work Frank Herbert, Hayao Miyazaki, George Lucas, David Lean, and William Wyler yet is unmistakably James Cameron.
The plot is a familiar one. An indiginous species has something of deep spiritual value to them. An invading species sees monetary value in that thing and will take it by force. An invader becomes close to the indiginous species and sees the purity in their way and tries to defend it, but not before much is lost and many lessons are learned.
Its plot is the least impressive part of Avatar. It’s a formula that has been tried and tested and worked but it’ll never set the world on fire in terms of creativity. The plot is one of the very few areas that the cynics will find faultlines in what is a resoundingly complete experience. The dialogue and execution of the plot is excellent, however.
Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a Marine who lost the use of his legs in combat whose identical twin brother was part of a massive program linking human beings to the alien race known as the N’avi at the genetic level. His brother was to have donned an ‘Avatar’, walking in the body of the large blue creatures in order to survive in Pandora’s atmosphere and interact with its people. When his brother is killed before able to participate, Jake literally and figuratively steps into his shoes since he shares the same genetic code. No fan of planning, research, and tact, the malleable and untrained Jake represents a man caught between worlds. To Grace (Sigourney Weaver), the project leader and peace-loving liason to the N’avi he represents a clumsy distraction to her mission and to Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) he represents a Trojan Horse to plant amidst the N’avi to gain intel for a messy and resolute endgame.
In actuality, the Avatar program allows Jake to walk again. To run. To have nearly superhuman abilities when compared to his shattered and seemingly useless human form. He doesn’t care about the N’avi. He doesn’t care about the substance [here called unobtanium, which caused snickers from people in the audience who don’t realize that’s a moniker often given to things which defy classification] whose value has brought humans this far into space to mine for. He doesn’t care about much, aside from having something to do and the ability to perform again.
Avatar is sort of a cypher until Jake begins to explore the world of Pandora because everything feels right. There’s a sense of ‘when is he going to drop the ball?’ to the early moments because it almost feels like a follow-up to Cameron’s Aliens. The tech of the human military is incredible, world-worn, and functional rather than showy. This handicapped man as your tour guide [or should I say audience avatar] through this cold and busy new world of man. It’s all engaging and interesting and so very much Cameron [elements of The Abyss and Aliens course through much of this film, something this reviewer considers extremely good qualities to posess]. The x-factor is and always was whether or not these odd cat-like blue creatures are interesting enough and effective enough to sustain such a massive undertaking.
The N’avi are fantastic. They are fantastic as a technical achievement and as characters. The level of expression is considerably better than one is accustomed to seeing in the digital world and there’s a life to them, that fire behind their eyes. Though their movements do at times have that weightless feel to them, a lot can be attributed to the size, proportions, and otherworldly nature to the creatures. This could also be considered apologizing.
Since a large portion of the film is digital and the performances delivered through the painstaking motion capture process, so much rides both on the work of the fine folks at Stan Winston Studios and Weta Digital and the actors themselves. It may not be seamless, but it’s close. The ‘hero’ N’Avi characters as essayed by Worthington, Weaver, Zoe Saldaña, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi, and [the one and only] CCH Pounder are articulate, believable, and deliver excellent performances. They aren’t showy but somewhat invisible once the film gets cranking. The biggest hurdle of the film creatively was to create living, breathing creatures we’ve never seen that coax an audience under their spell and that hurdle is leapt rather early on. From then on it’s a cascade of action, spectacle, and surprisingly moving moments where the spiritual and natural underbelly of Pandora comes into play.
Cameron has made very cold movies and movies that embrace raw emotion and Avatar truly does feel like the marriage of those worlds. The Abyss did it well. This does it better. This feels genuine. It may sometimes border on familiar [the Dances with Wolves comparison is a fair one, but on the same note so are Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and Princess Mononoke] and we’ve seen the “Corporations and military are the ultimate evil” vibe before, in fact quite effectively in previous Cameron films.
It just works. A lot of that is due to the technical work and theme park aspect to watching a gigantic epic [and this is epic, no doubt] film in 3-D but it’s moreso due to the great performances across the board, Cameron’s very tight scripting, and the fact they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. It works. It just requires a little bit of that wonder that made many of us such avid readers and consumers of celluloid.
And the best thing about the film, the absolutely engaging and unforgettable gritty epicenter to what makes this thing not only manna for geeks but something everyone will get a kick out of?
There should be a special Oscar for the man for one-upping nearly every hardass military guy we’ve seen onscreen and chewing scenery in the most appealing and iconic way possible. Every moment the man is onscreen we are seeing an entire career of amazing character work oozing through one focused and delightful performance. He could have easily been the mustache-twirling villain and he embraces that villainy with aplomb but his work is so sublime that you almost want him to win. Almost want him to escape unscathed. I could watch this guy play this character forever.
And there’s a moment late in the film involving him and a little value added aspect to his mech suit that, if you don’t get what kind of movie Avatar is then, you never will nor deserve to.
There are flaws. But in the grand scheme, they’re dust in the wind. I could have done with a few less primal screams from the N’avi but it’s a common trait amongst the tribal and deeply spiritual and animalistic races and there’s no denying Cameron’s attention to detail. He and his craftsmen have created machines, weapons, plant life, enviroments, and creatures that look and act cool but never at the expense of logic. You can believe a world like the one sprung from his imagination could exist. If nothing else Cameron is a perfectionist. His work is far from perfect, but his process and discipline reeks of attention to detail and the man has the ability to explain every screw, muscle, and physical trait’s reason for existence and it’s hard not to fall in line with the sheer vision involved.
The film is gorgeous, the relationships are effective, you actually feel for these collections of pixels and polygons, and I left the theater energized and entertained in a manner in which rarely happens. What you will get from Avatar resides in how much of a sense of wonder you still carry to the movie theater with you. If you are willing to fall prey to the magical escapism of movies and love the idea that true science fiction and true pulp adventure is alive and kicking in the theatrical world, you like me, will eat this film up.
If not, I’m sorry for you. This is what The Phantom Menace should have been. It’s proof that all that buzz about Sam Worthington is legit. It’s proof that the only downside to Avatar is how it allowed us to forget what a powerhouse James Cameron is.
I love this movie. Is it perfect? No. Is it immersive, entertaining, and breathtaking? Yes. Is it a masterpiece?
If you go by the definition above, I think it just may be.