Ordinarily, excess style and little substance would not make a movie a must-see. But Avatar plays by a different set of rules. In his first film since Titanic (1997), writer/director James Cameron has created one of the most ambitious, visually dazzling films ever made. Does that make it a great movie? No. The script is cheesy, and the story is predictable. But that doesn't mean it's not a groundbreaking cinematic event, told with imagination and a vitality that's missing from most modern science-fiction dramas.
The year is 2154 and humans have traveled to a distant moon called Pandora, which is home to the Na'vi tribe. The Na'vi have blue skin, are 10 feet tall and have tails. Because the planet is inhospitable to humans, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has created the Avatar program, in which humans are linked to a Na'vi body while their human bodies sleep in coffin-like cells.
What this means is that a Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is paralyzed from the waist down, is able to be a fully functional Na'vi on the surface of Pandora. His mission is to extract information about the tribe so Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) can exploit their weaknesses and forcefully obtain a precious mineral that sits deep below the surface. After a few rough spots Jake succeeds at infiltrating the tribe, but things become complicated when he falls in love with his Na'vi teacher, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
If you're lucky enough to live near a theater offering the film in 3-D, be sure to see it in that format. The visual effects are clear and stunningly vivid, so much that you feel like you're flying through the sky with Jake and Neytiri. What's more, the Na'vi look like real creatures inhabiting a real place, and there's nothing cartoonish or fake about them. Only time will tell if Avatar will change the way movies are made and seen, but it's safe to say at least some aspects of Cameron's creative process will become commonplace.
Given that the actors were shot against a green screen (similar to how 300 was created), this marks a notable advancement in visual-effects technology. For their part, Worthington, Saldana, Weaver and Lang breathe as much realistic life into the estimated $400 million production as possible, which is an accomplishment given the sentimental dialogue and lumbering story line.
The likely divide between lovers and detractors of Avatar is simple: Those who value eye candy and action will not mind the 160-minute running time, while those more concerned with plot and narrative will find it tiresome and leave with a headache. You know who you are, so don't say you weren't warned.
Did you know? One innovation created for Avatar was the Virtual Camera, which allowed Cameron to see the Na'vi during production. For example, although Saldana and Worthington were wearing motion-capture suits, Cameron was able to see their giant blue avatars on monitors, complete with tails and huge golden eyes.