Avatar (9/10)

Gosh darn you, James Cameron! How did you do it? How were you able to suck out virtually every ounce of skepticism and cynicism that I desperately clung to before and during the first fifteen minutes of the movie? How exactly did you bowl me over with this wondrous new planet (technically, a moon) of Pandora and its cast of familiar characters and been there done that situations? How were you able to take the ordinary and ABRACADABRA transform it into something truly extraordinary? I don’t know how you did it, Mr. Cameron, but damn me if I ever question your status as a true movie magician again.

How to explain Avatar exactly? Citing its not-particularly-amazing storyline, of a paraplegic war veteran named Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), being drafted into the Avatar program on the distant moon of Pandora, where he will mind-link up with a genetically engineered “avatar” of one of the blue-skinned native Na’vi, thrusting him into an inevitable confrontation between the nature-loving natives and the trigger-happy resource-hungry Marines and their general Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), wouldn’t do it justice; it might even put you off to the film, as it did me.

So what *does* make it work? Every single other thing in the entire freakin’ movie. It’s impossible to exaggerate the lush grandeur of Pandora, its intricately crafted ecosystem with flesh-seeking beasties, glowing, floating dandelion-like petals, or flying four-winged prehistoric tye-dyed reptiles. The forests groan with weight, massive foliage and buick-sized leaves adorn the larger-than-life trees, spots of brief glow ignite underfoot as characters run across them, illustrating the breathtaking interconnectedness of this world. Sully’s first foray into Pandora as one of the ten-foot tall blue creatures that roam the land and connect with its inhabitants on a deep level, the Na’vi, will arrest you, snatch your breath away, as Sully experiences for the first time in years the feel of walking, of running, of curling his toes into the dirt of the earth.

The Na’vi themselves are easily the most incredible thing about this movie. For years Zemeckis has tried to bridge the Uncanny Valley, that treacherous CGI wasteland. Remember Final Fantasy? The Polar Express? Beowulf? A Christmas Carol? Each of these took bold steps into that valley, but each time it felt alien, artificial, characters with dead eyes, a clunky step, and plastic flesh walked the screen bearing a resemblence, but only superficial, to actual humans. Cameron, by contrast, took his time. He came up with the story back in 1999, after Titanic, and took ten full years to perfect the technology needed to not give you the shivers-up-your-spine feeling while looking at the Na’vi. These alien creatures from a distant moon feel real, their eyes resonate, are extremely expressive, and penetrate with startling reality beyond the screen and into the real world. The Uncanny Valley is no more with Avatar.

With fluid grace these creatures rule but do not dominate the land of Pandora, their muscles flex, their blue skin with uniquely patterned glow-spots vibrates with energy, their mouth moves like a human’s, when they smile it reaches their eyes. When they are sad it breaks the heart. The Na’vi are key to what makes Avatar work – you really, really don’t want these diabolical space marines coming into and destroying their land just to get resources. It does not matter that you’ve seen this story before, in fact it may just be because we’ve seen it before that it resonates so strongly. Scenes with the space marines back at the base feel a bit like dead weight, and Avatar is at its soaring strongest with Jake Sully is immersed in the awesome world of Pandora.

Avatar is alive with careful filmmaking, gripping and thrilling action scenes, and a universe and creatures unlike anything you have ever seen before. Its comparisons to Star Wars among critics are unfortunate and inaccurate – the memorable characters and witty dialog of Star Wars are nowhere to be found here – “Avatar’s” characters are archetypes, played on a grand scale. The beautiful native, the hearty foreigner, the scientist, the quirky sidekick, the evil general, etc….story-wise, Avatar is nothing revolutionary. But its unremarkable story is in service to truly epic event in filmmaking history, one unlike anything we’ve seen before. Cameron was right in that sense, and what marks this as a success despite its shortcomings more than anything is that the second it was over, I wanted to see it again. Its not often movies can transport you to a completely believable and fully immersive world, but hey, we’re talking Cameron-King-of-the-World here. All in a decade’s work.


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