James Cameron did it. He really did it. He managed to turn a childhood dream into a twenty-first century masterpiece. He wrote the story ten years ago but he knew that the technology was not yet up to par to create his visionary planet Pandora. So he patiently waited until everything lined up. For the past four years, Cameron and his talented crew figured out how to seamlessly integrate the CG world with the real world, tying in an engrossing and timely story to boot. Gorgeous, triumphant, groundbreaking; Avatar is all that and more.
What is Avatar about? The movie focuses on Jake Sully, a paralyzed former U.S. marine who was injured during combat on Earth. When Jake’s twin brother dies he is called upon by a corporation to take his place in the Avatar program. Having been recruited into the program, Jake travels to Pandora, a spectacularly large planet that is inhabited by the indigenous Na’vi (the tall blue humanoids) as well as other animals and creatures. We quickly learn that the corporation has occupied Pandora because the planet contains vast amounts of a mineral called Unobtainium that sells for a lot of money on Earth and promises to solve the Earth’s energy crisis. The problem lies in the fact that the Na’vi people live right on top of the richest deposits of the mineral. The Avatar program includes a group of scientists and military men. Since humans cannot breathe the air on Pandora, the scientists discovered how to place human consciousness into a remotely controlled genetically engineered Avatar body. Because they share the same DNA, Jake is a perfect fit for his brother’s Avatar. While the scientists are trying to find a diplomatic way to make the Na’vi move from their land, the militarists are trigger-happy and quickly find an excuse to destroy the Na’vi’s most important landmarks to excavate the mineral. All the while, Jake is stuck in the middle. He makes a deal with Colonel Quaritch, the military head of security; Quaritch promises to have the corporation pay for a new pair of legs for Jake when he returns home if Jake infiltrates the Na’vi in his Avatar body to gain their trust. Though he agrees to this deal at first, Jake quickly realizes that he must help protect the Na’vi from “the sky people.” The movie follows Jake becoming accepted into the Na’vi tribe, gaining their trust, falling in love with a powerful Na’vi warrior, and fighting against his own people.
I know what you are thinking because I was thinking the same thing during the movie: Avatar sounds like Pocahontas meets The Matrix. Jake, like John Smith, voyages to a distant new world where his mission is to drive away the native people so his people can dig for precious minerals. During his time with the natives, though, Jake learns the land and even falls in love with the chief’s daughter. Having made a genuine connection with the new world, he has no choice but to help the native people protect it from the evil corporation. All the while, Jake is harnessed into a technologically advanced tube that transmits his consciousness into another reality that starts to “feel more real” than life in his human body. Pocahontas meets The Matrix indeed.
Avatar makes for a great Western set in space. Although it comes off subtle, the movie can be read as a timely piece that reverberates today’s heated political climate and the U.S.’s imperialist ways (our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq). It also has hints of 9/11 references with over-the-top destruction scenes and the use of terms “terrorists” and “shock and awe.” Cameron is smart to keep these political inferences in check, but it would be naive not to notice them.
If you are going to see this movie (and you should) be prepared to enter a brand new world and be part of a cinematic landmark. The world of Pandora is stunningly beautiful; Cameron completed a difficult task when he decided to go about creating his dream planet filled with native people, countless wildlife, and a living and breathing environment. The mingling of CG Avatars, the Na’vi people, and environments with humans and real surroundings is done in a way I have never seen before. CG motion-capture animation and realism have become one and the same, and this results in a true suspension of disbelief; you simply cannot tell what is real and what is computer-generated anymore. Cameron has reached the pinnacle of 3D cinema with Avatar and has set the bar very high for future 3D-enhanced movies.
Avatar is meant to be watched in 3D. Cameron and crew created special high definition 3D cameras for the making of this movie, and you can clearly see all the hard work and attention to detail that was put into it. Reminiscent of Pixar’s UP, Avatar utilizes 3D technologies to fully immerse the viewer into the world that the on-screen characters live in. In these movies nothing pops out at you and shouts, “Look, I’m in 3D!” In this way, 3D is no longer a gimmick with glasses; it provides a new medium for visionaries to help their audiences forget they are in a movie theatre and start believing they are part of the movie itself.
Years from now Avatar will be remembered for the movie that pushed visual effects to its limit, and even further than that. James Cameron promised a groundbreaking 3D experience, and Avatar delivers on all levels. The story, the characters, and the score are all top notch but it’s Pandora, its inhabitants and fantastical nature (plants and creatures included) that will be deeply ingrained in the viewer’s mind. To be frank, the theatrical and televised trailers do not do this movie much justice. To use the old adage, you simply must see it to believe it.
[Thanks IGN, IMDB, Wiki for jogging my memory]