I have a hard time hiding my excitement over James Cameron's return to the big screen. Now that he has grown out of his making documentaries about Christianity phase, he can finally return to his true calling; making the films that define the sci-fi action genre. While he has always been on the cutting edge of special effects spectacle, Cameron may have even impressed himself with Avatar. Special effects have never been as good as they are here. Avatar is an epic in every sense of the word. The scope, the visuals and the story of Avatar are all so much larger than life that, it's hard not to be swept off your feet.
Jake Sully, a paralyzed ex-marine, played by Sam Worthington, takes a job on Pandora, a lush jungle world where a less than savory company is mining for the mineral resource "unobtainium". Whoever OKed that name made a huge mistake, but, anyway, back to the story. Jake's job on Pandora is to pilot an avatar. This isn't just some extra human body to keep him alive, the body is of the native race of Pandora, the Na'vi. In a twist of fate, Jake meets a Na'vi women who sees a lot of mystery and prophecy surrounding him. She convinces her tribe to take him in and train him in their ways. From there, things develop as a standard epic. There's betrayal, a love story, some bravery in the face of impossible odds and so on. It's all generally effective, even if it's nothing new, but the scope of James Cameron's vision is what really makes Avatar work. That and the glorious special effects.
Few science fiction or fantasy worlds have ever felt as complete as the world of Pandora. There is nobody to praise for this except Cameron. The combination of mind-blowing effects and attention to details make for a movie that is constantly surprising. There is so much to see on the world of Pandora, so many mysteries to be unlocked, that Cameron can do little but to allude to most of them. There are very few science fiction movies with this kind of world building and it's a primary reason why many fail. Not only is the world fully fleshed out, but praise must be given to James Cameron for waiting until the time was ready; for waiting until special effects technology had progressed to a point where he didn't need to compromise his vision for any reason. Let's not forget that the main draw of Avatar is, and it should be, the unbelievable special effects. The digital characters in Avatar make Gollum look like child's play. The characters are fully expressive and beautifully rendered creations that can stand next to a real person and still look like flesh and blood. Combined with the most detailed, and beautiful, CGI backdrops ever, Avatar has to be seen to be believed. On a personal note, the movie was meant to be seen in 3D, so don't pass up an opportunity to do so. It truly brings out all the detail in a way that a traditional viewing could never do.
There is no denying that Avatar hits on some familiar notes, but most of them are interesting variants on things we've seen before. The movie has a fairly traditional epic story and Avatar is full of the traditional archetypes and plot devices, but it's all just genuine enough to keep you engaged. The movie also gives some interesting twists to concepts that seem to be awfully prevalent in popular science fiction right now. The biggest of these, the idea of human beings piloting some other form of body, and the questions that arise, seems to be everywhere recently. At least two other films this year have explored this idea, in it's varying forms, but Avatar gives it a nice twist. The two world's that Jake inhabits are so radically different, that his journey is more a personal journey than many of the other explorations of this concept. This makes Jake's identity crisis significantly more effective. This is partly because of Sam Worthington's performance, which is a pleasant surprise, and because the personal nature of the journey gives Cameron more time to explore it rather than needing to discuss the effect of the idea on humanity as a whole. The movie tries to explore the effects of the human race on nature, like many recent movies, and also succeeds because of Cameron's mastery of the science fiction genre. Rather than focus on a simple spiritual connection between the Na'vi and nature, Cameron shows us an actual, physical bond between the people of Pandora and their world. This is in stark opposition to the human race, who trashes their own world and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the connection between the living things on Pandora. This draws a stark contrast between the human race and the Na'vi which is all the more effective because of the epic structure of the film.
Avatar is nothing more than movie spectacle at it's very best. Both a special effects extravaganza and a reasonably successful epic, the film is the perfect reminder of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. It's hard to believe that special effects have come this far, but I saw it with my own eyes. Avatar could change the way movies are made and I'm glad it's receiving positive reviews and recognition for it's efforts. While it may not be Best Drama material, it's implications on the modern film-making industry may be felt for years to come.