Avatar reviewed in 3D, on IMAX: you know the story; go anyway
Avatar may be hurt by the curse of expectation, and it's hard to keep the message that MOVIE MAKING HAS BEEN CHANGED FOREVER out of your mind once your butt is actually in a seat in front of the thing. The trailers keep telling us how nothing will ever be the same again, and we know the budget of the movie was anywhere from $200 million to $500 million, depending on what report you're reading. Who knows how much R&D Cameron put into the technology behind the movie.
Even the credits of the film are monstrous: after Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Digital were credited for the special effects, the long line of other effects houses that worked on the movie scrolled by. I lost count of how many different companies leveraged how many different forms of technology to get Avatar filmed. If you're a fan of cinema, no matter how you feel about the trailer, you need to see this movie; it represents the absolute best that technology can give us in film—at least with an unlimited budget and a small city of geniuses working across a decade to bring it to life.
Does it have a heart?
The humans are on a moon called Pandora to mine a substance known as "Unobtanium," and it's hard to tell if the movie is winking at us by naming the rock thusly. We never know what it is, and what we're not told what it does. We get dropped hints that Earth itself is dying, or is at least completely industrial. Pandora is the exact opposite: lush, brightly colored, and exploding with life.
The moon is inhabited by large, blue-skinned life forms called the "Na'vi," and they're every idealized form of Native American ever put onto film. They're in tune with nature, live in trees, and thank the spirits of the animals they kill for giving their life. They don't like us, even though the humans have created schools to teach them English. We offer medicine and knowledge, and they don't care. One character notes that it's hard to strike a deal with a race that isn't interested in light beer and blue jeans.
To that end, the Avatar project is launched. We grow Na'vi bodies with human DNA, and using remote technology, humans "drive" the bodies by entering coffin-like chambers. The science behind this process is thankfully loosely explained; any attempt to throw buzzwords at it would have been silly. The Avatar project allows us to look like them, we can gain their trust, and then... well, we're going to get what we want.
Jake Sully is entered into this Avatar program by an odd twist of fate, and this gives the movie an excuse to send someone who hasn't been trained about life on Pandora into harm's way. That way the characters can explain everything to him, and, of course, to the audience. He's a marine, disabled, and he's promised that if he does what his superiors want, he'll be given his legs back. The operation exists, he just can't afford it. The man making this promise has a scar on this face, so you know he's evil.
In fact, these characters fall into rather broad archetypes, and any growth they exhibit is heavily foreshadowed. You'll see echoes of characters from past Cameron films, and his distrust of the military-industrial complex is out in full force. The movie is given a much-needed shot of warmth from Sigourney Weaver, who is able to bring a quiet resolve and respect to her character.
The movie hits every expected beat in this story, and it's one that has been told before. This is Dances with Wolves. This is FernGully. This is the Last Samurai. You can plot out the arc of the story long before you watch the film, and several times during my viewing I wanted to stop time à la Zach Morris and ask other members of the audience what was going to happen next. I had a feeling they would all be able to give the correct answer. The dialog can get incredibly obvious, even tedious in places.
I can't wait to see the movie again. I hit up the local 3D, IMAX screen, and the first scene let me know that I was going to see something special. You don't go fifteen minutes between amazing reveals of animals, set pieces, characters, or technology. The scale is ridiculous. The 3D effects are used to great effect, and never feel cheesy or tacked on. There were moments I wanted to pump my first in the air. There were vistas that took my breath away. This is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful film, and it can feel over-analyzed—what wouldn't with this amount of work being put into it—but it's above all an amazing piece of wizardry.
There is one particular scene where the action slows down to show how a character got out of a jam, and my mind told me, "Oh, I can tell that we switched over to CGI." The problem is that the entire scene was comprised of impossible animals and a blue-skinned alien; there had been nothing "real" onscreen in quite some time. Objects interact with one another with actual weight, and the internal scenes with human actors are blended with the epic scale of Pandora well. The alien atmosphere is pressing on every wall. The Na'vi, likewise, are brought to life with skill and grace. After a few minutes you'll be taking what you're seeing for granted. While the oversaturation of the colors of the flora and fauna can sometimes make scenes feel like a black-light poster, overall these are the most special of effects, the kind that know how to get out of their own way to serve the visuals.
The PG-13 rating allows for a decent amount of violence and salty language, but a major misstep is keeping the Na'vi ambiguously nude. There is always a bit of hair or a strand of beads placed strategically. An actual flash of nipple—or whatever organs the Na'vi have—would have been less distracting.
The story may be trite, but the way it's told that redeems the entire endeavor. The Na'vi speak a fictional language, but this is no Lord of the Rings. If anything, this is a reversal of James Cameron's Aliens, another film that explored a high-tech battle between humans and a race that could stage guerilla war. Aliens is a sci-fi take on Vietnam, but this time we're rooting for the other team, and we find ourselves praying that somehow the bows and arrows will be enough against drop ships and mechs.
Verdict: Go see it