As we continue our look at the contenders for Best Picture, we come to the $700 million elephant in the room, James Cameron's mega-blockbuster "Avatar". This film has blown past the former all-time box office champion "Titanic", which not coincidentily was also made by Cameron, and is also a lightning rod for controversy, as "Titanic" is now regarded by many critics and fans as one of the least deserving films ever to win "Best Picture". Will "Avatar" follow in those footsteps? And does it deserve all of the love and all of the hate it's been getting? If you read my review from earlier, you'll know my opinion. If not, you get a chance to hear it now.
This movie goes right up there with 1993's "Jurassic Park" as films that simply blow you away entertainment-wise with new technologies that create visuals you never thought possible on the big screen. And now in the last month of the last year of the decade, we have a movie that I feel will go down as something that will be remembered and talked about for the next generation.
Notice that I'm not saying it's a great film, because it's not. But that's in the same vein as saying "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Jaws", and "Jurassic Park" aren't "Great Films". The story itself is a little too simplistic, but that's not really the point of the movie. While I think "Avatar" has an excellent chance of snagging a Best Picture nomination this year, solely due to the fact that the Academy has expanded the category to ten nominations, it has very little chance of winning. It doesn't matter. Like the other three films I mentioned, to say nothing of similar films like "Aliens", "Terminator", or even the Star Wars films, this is Great Entertainment.
I always found it interesting how Cameron took such a long break after his previously crowning achievement, "Titanic", in 1997. Sure, the movie has become almost a punch-line to many critics (myself included) over the years, but the fact still remains the Cameron not only made the movie that still remains untouchable at the top of the all-time box-office list, he also won Oscars for doing so.
Rather than rush back out there to capitalize on his success (like the Coen Brothers), Cameron has waited twelve years before going back into the director's chair. Although "waiting" may not be the right word. He has been working on "Avatar" for years; writing the script, developing the mythology of an entirely new world, and also working on developing the new technology that would allow for its filming.
To say he succeeded here is a complete understatement. What I saw on screen, in 3D, was nothing short of breathtaking. This is not animated characters drawn next to real actors. This is not obvious green screen CGI. This is a total integration of live action and computer effects; some of which can even make Peter Jackson's magnificent work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy pale by comparison.
Cameron spends more of his narrative creating this world, which may be why the plot is a bit thinner. This is a completely unique story, one in which no one is familiar going in, with no franchise tag attached to it, nor even the advantage of devoted readership, such as LotR or Harry Potter. To make another comparison, you must go back to the first "Star Wars", and like that film, it was mostly about the action and special effects, but still in need of a story interesting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. As we saw just a few weeks ago with the atrocious "2012", jaw dropping special effects mean nothing if the story turns out being stupid, and the characters are people that you don't care for.
No such issues here. As we start out, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, is just waking up from almost six years in suspended animation for his trip to the planet Pandora. The planet actually is a moon of a giant gas planet...sort of an aqua Jupiter. The planet has an ore on it that is nearly priceless on Earth, a metal that defies gravity (which leads to some truly amazing shots of floating mountains), which means that a high paying corporation is willing to endure the "unpleasantries" of such things as an atmosphere unbreathable by humans and lots of indigenous creatures that want to kill the alien invaders.
Foremost of these are the Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture...who also happened to be ten feet tall blue creatures with incredible strength, speed, and agility. To assist in the humans' effort to interact with the Na'vi, "avatars" were created; biological beings made with the DNA of both Na'vi and human. These avatars look almost identical to the Na'vi, with the exception of having five fingers instead of four, and are "driven" by the thoughts of the human host from a chamber back at corporate headquarters.
This assignment especially appeals to Jake, as he is once again able to "use" his legs whenever he is traipsing about the countryside in his Na'vi guise. After becoming separated from the others on his team, led by the chainsmoking head botanist Grace (Sigourney Weaver), he meets up with the daughter of one particular clan's chief. The meeting results in Jake's integration into the clan, and his efforts to understand them.
That is about all of the particulars of the plot I feel that I need to expose here. As stated, it's not too complex, and the numerous comments you may have read about this being very similar to "Dances with Wolves" is both correct and inaccurate at the same time. Cameron makes no bones about equating the tree hugging Na'vi to the Native Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries, but there are huge differences as well, which I will leave untold for now.
What won't be a surprise or shock at all is in the presentation of the corporation and their mercenary paramilitary security detail as the villains of the show. From "Aliens" to the Terminator films to "The Abyss", Cameron has always made it a point to paint corporate management and their bean counters as the bad guys...or at least as unfortunate fools too blinded by profits to see. No difference here, with Giovanni Ribisi playing the corporate manager/stooge; a man suitably weak enough to be subjugated by the sadistic Col. Quaritch, played to perfection by Stephen Lang.
In fact, there is consistently good acting across the board in this film, despite the script limitations. Praiseworthy is Sigourney Weaver, relishing her migration to matronly roles. While she doesn't look anywhere close to her actual 60 years in age (can that really be right?), she is a great mother-lion to her botanist â€˜cubs', which eventually includes Jake, whom she initially resents. Michelle Rodriguez also has a good smaller role as Trudy, the helo pilot who is frustrated by the dictatorial Quaritch.
It is, however, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana who give the best performances as Jake and Neytiri, with most of their work, in Worthington's case, or all of their work in Saldana's being in their Na'vi guise using motion capture technology. The actors are recognizable (mostly) in their alien form, due to the seamless integration of digital photography and computer animation that was so real-life that I was for a moment thinking that they just used make-up and some prosthetics for Weaver's Na'vi avatar. In any case, Worthington and Saldana had some wonderful scenes together; be it sparring, joking, fleeing in danger, or getting closer to one another than they initially wanted. These are the type of roles that "A-List" actors may refuse to take due to their egos being threatened by being upstaged by the special effects. No problem, as these two were perfect in their roles.
But the real star of the film is the planet Pandora...or shall we just say James Cameron's ingenious vision of a planet where everything is somewhat familiar, but very, very different. Six legged horses, giant rhinoceros type creatures with hammerhead shark type heads, hairless wolves, and flying reptiles roam the rain forests and the skies. And then there is the plant life, which beckons back to Cameron's love of deep sea diving; a totally strange world of fluorescent plants that can turn on like a lamp when touched, or retreat into the ground. Moss that lights up as Jake and Neytiri step on it, like a giant video game, and forests with root systems intertwining like a giant network.
There is so much to see in this film, that it will probably take two or three viewings to catch it all. For that reason, I highly recommend seeing this in a theater, preferably in 3D. Out of everything I've seen this year, "Avatar" will not qualify as my "Best" movie of the year...but it will qualify as the one movie I will call a "Must See Film".
Don't wait for this one to come out on DVD. Go see it at the theater, and prepare to be amazed.
My Rating - Bernie Kosar (4 footballs) In truth, the plotline is more of a Frank Ryan (3 footballs), but the visuals are so unbelievable...they are at an Otto Graham in a playoff game level...that the final result is the 4 it's getting.
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