SPOILER-FREE REVIEW FOLLOWS.
Thanks to my manager deciding that the last Friday afternoon before our mandatory two-week “Holiday Closure” period would be better spent at the movies than in the office, a group of us decided to take in a matinee screening of James Cameron’s latest film epic, Avatar.
It’s been more than a decade since Cameron directed his last major motion picture, that being a little-known, mostly-forgotten little ship on the water pic from 1997 called Titanic. With that movie, Cameron defied studio and public expectations, gambling that an assload of people would turn out to watch a story where the ending was pretty much known to everyone with at least a partially-functioning brainstem. Turn out we did, to the final tune of something like 1.2 billion dollars in box office receipts, 11 Academy Awards, and one of the worst songs to accompany a soundtrack, at least until “Faith of the Heart” became the theme song to Star Trek: Enterprise a few years later.
Since then, Cameron’s been busying himself with documentaries (Ghosts of the Abyss, Expedition: Bismark, etc.), and other projects, including the development of film and software technology for the primary purpose of delivering to audiences his latest flick, which hit theaters yesterday.
Damn, but this is something.
Now, when I say this, I don’t mean to say that this is The Greatest Movie Ever. I’m not even sure it’s Cameron’s best film, but it’s definitely the most ambitious. I’m hard-pressed to find a way to categorize this thing. It’s science fiction, action-adventure, romance, and message pic all wrapped up into one, and it’s done so using the typical James Cameron strengths and weaknesses.
First, the strengths: The film is absolutely gorgeous, a true visual wonder to behold, and if you’re planning to see it, I strongly urge you to do so in the theater, where you can immerse yourself in the world created for this story. As one has come to expect from a Cameron film, there’s remarkable attention to detail, both in the environment the characters inhabit as well as explanations for how and why things do what they do. Cameron’s always been a stickler for giving the audience what it needs to follow along, without beating viewers over the head with explanations and instead trusting them to fill in the blanks after first laying down enough clues and hints in logical fashion. He does so again here. As for the CGI, I have to confess, there were times that I realized I’d forgotten I was watching a computer-generated character, particularly in a few key scenes featuring such creations interacting with human counterparts. For the most part, the effect is that seamless. I can only recall one scene offhand where the quality of the effects pulled me out of the story because it looked too hokey. Otherwise, a very definite A for Effort is awarded here.
As for the actor contributions, they run the gamut. Sigourney Weaver provides a customary solid performance, and the very talented Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Michelle Rodriguez, and Joel Moore do what they can with what they’re given. Other, cardboard-cutout characters are precisely that; glorified extras who inhabit scenes, mostly to shoot or be shot at and so on. However, the film rests on the shoulders of Sam Worthington (one of the few bright spots in the otherwise dreary Terminator Salvation) and – to a slightly lesser extent, Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the new Star Trek film), and both actors carry that burden very well.
Weaknesses: As with pretty much every other Cameron movie, the story is rather straightforward and even predictable in some places. It’s essentially The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, and/or The Last Samurai, to name the prime examples for comparison. As other reviewers have pointed out, in this case, a simpler take isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gives you a chance to really throw yourself into the world of Pandora and its inhabitants, both indigenous and otherwise. Another Cameron hallmark is the not-infrequent line of cringe-worthy dialogue. Even without Leonardo DiCaprio to deliver some of the worst offenders, there’s still plenty to go around, mostly with respect to anything that comes out of the mouth of anyone in a military uniform. Of particular note is veteran actor Stephen Lang, who chews the scenery — real and computer-generated — with unrestrained relish. He gets some of the worst lines in the film, but he throws himself into his role of a hard-charging commander of corporate mercenaries with total abandon.
James Horner composed the film’s score, and if you’ve heard the soundtracks to Aliens, The Abyss, and/or Titanic, then you’ve already heard a good bit of the music featured in this film. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can spot a Horner score with one ear tied behind my back.
Bottom line: Definitely a ground-breaking piece of film-making, and worth seeing on the big screen. I liked it enough that I’m going again, this time with the wife, who wants the 3-D experience.