Take 12 years in between films, and no matter what you do next, expectations will be high. For James Cameron, whose last feature (in 1997) swept the Oscars and still stands as the all-time box-office champ, expectations are off the charts. So Avatar, his long-awaited follow-up to Titanic, pretty much has to be the greatest cinematic achievement of all time in order not to qualify as a disappointment from an audience perspective. For his part, Cameron seems to have the same attitude: Whatever its flaws, you can’t say that Avatar lacks ambition. It aspires to do nothing less than reinvent moviemaking.
Which, from a visual standpoint, it very nearly does. One of the reasons Cameron spent so long working on this film (he first came up with the story in 1994) is that he’s actually developed new technology to capture the vision he had 15 years ago, which he didn’t feel was possible at the time. Cameron’s creation of the planet Pandora (in lifelike 3D) is a monumental visual achievement, a fully realized world more immersive than that of any other sci-fi epic to date. Avatar isn’t merely a marvel of special effects—it’s a fount of creativity, with each alien creature representing a beautifully original design. It’s one thing to use hyperrealistic effects to destroy recognizable buildings or vehicles—Cameron uses them to bring to life something wholly imagined.
It’s rare to recommend seeing a movie for its effects alone, but that’s exactly the case here. Maybe a third of the movie features actual human actors, playing scientists, soldiers and corporate stooges at an Earth base on Pandora, but the rest of the movie is all CGI and motion-capture, as several of the human characters inhabit so-called avatars, bodies that mix human DNA with that of Pandora’s blue-skinned native Na’vi people. Most of the time, you’re seeing nothing but special effects, and the level of detail and care is astounding.
Unfortunately, there’s also a story. As a writer, Cameron has always relied on generous helpings of cheese, but Avatar goes beyond any of his previous action movies in its reliance on treacly romance and heavy-handed lesson-learning. Main character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, with a shaky American accent) is a paralyzed Marine who joins the avatar team of no-nonsense scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) as a replacement for his late twin brother. Separated from his colleagues during a field mission, Jake finds himself face-to-face with one of the locals, a female Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and escapes unharmed only because she sees a sign that he is that staple of lazy sci-fi, a Chosen One.
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Jake immerses himself in Na’vi culture and soon goes all Dances With Wolves, coming to love the peaceful, nature-loving ways of the simple natives, and falling in love with Neytiri along the way. The heartless corporate/military goons (represented by Giovanni Ribisi as a sniveling suit and Stephen Lang as a nutso Marine commander) want to pillage the land for a compound called, with a straight face, unobtainium, and Jake joins with the Na’vi to stop them.
It’s a simplistic, mushy parable about environmental responsibility and sensitivity to native peoples, with cardboard characters and some lifeless acting from Worthington. Cameron’s best protagonists—Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, Ellen Ripley in Aliens—went through real growth and change, and struggled with their alien situations. But Jake’s journey from jarhead to true believer is undermotivated and far too easy, and the conflict with his cartoonish superiors lacks bite. Cameron’s visuals are least impressive when used in service of Michael Bay-style action, and the climactic battle comes off as a little rote.
Even so, sitting in the theater with 3D glasses on and finding yourself on Pandora is an experience you won’t want to miss. Let’s just hope Cameron can do as much with storytelling as with technology the next time around—whenever that is.