A scene from Avatar. Credit: Weta
There are films that come along that change filmmaking. When I was younger, it was the original Star Wars films and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These films altered forever how we would look at film, space, science fiction, ourselves, and the world around us. Avatar takes us on a new exploration of those issues, once again raising the bar on our experiences.
This is not the 3D of the fifties! If you didn’t see Avatar in 3D, go back. This is not the old fashioned 3D film that tries to surprise you with items flying into your face. This 3D experience is one that pulls you into the world, and immerses you in every detail. The only dimension that seems to be missing at this point is smell. James Cameron has created a world full of amazement. Pandora, is a place where its inhabitants are intimately connected with nature in a way so many of us wish we were in this world.
Every detail in Avatar seems to have been thought through for years, and probably was, since this has been a pet project of James Cameron simmering on the back burner for more than a decade or two. From the bioluminescent moss that covers the massive trees to the sentient seeds of the tree of life to the connectors that link the inhabitants to their equivalent of horses and flying dragons, the world is detailed and complete.
James Cameron doesn’t try to completely reinvent the wheel. Pandora is hauntingly familiar, enough like home that we all feel we would like to move in, but just out of reach with its poisonous atmosphere. Creatures look eerily familiar. Jackals, panthers, horses, and prehistoric dinosaurs, are all given twists with 6 legs, gill-like breathing, nasty teeth, and connectors that can be used to link up to the minds of those who dare. That familiarity is exactly what pulls us into the world and makes it that much more believable.
Sam Worthington plays the hero, Jake Sully, who come from Earth to rape the planet, only to find that he is actually destined to protect it. His performance is quite amazing as he transitions from sullen paraplegic marine to avatar “operator.” However, his solid performance is overshadowed by Zoe Saldana’s performance as Neytiri. Every quizzical emotion is seen playing across Neytiri’s face in this film, and lest you think the actors were not responsible for those expressions, you should watch a documentary on how the facial images were captured and mapped onto the animated characters in this film. Zoe’s happiness, concern, annoyance, and tragic sadness is right there for us to see and relate to. Her performance is nothing less than exceptional.
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The protagonist in this film, Colonel Miles Quaritch played by Stephen Lang is a bit over the top in some ways. The character doesn’t seem to have any mode other than full-tilt destruction, and he might have benefited from a slightly conflicted conscience during at least one scene to give him a little more humanity. To balance him out, however we are given Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, the resident scientific expert on Avatars and Pandora. Dr. Grace acts almost as the conscience that the Colonel is missing.
There are other Pandoran characters who bring the story to life, including Laz Alonso as the warrior Tsu’Tey, and CCH Pounder beautifully depicting Moat, the wise-woman of the tribe and Neytiri’s mother. On the human side it seems that Jake Sully’s partner, Norm Spelling, brought to life by Joel Moore both as human and avatar is somewhat underused in this script. Although we see him throughout the film, he isn’t as developed as I would have expected. Michelle Rodriguez, in contrast has less screen-time and yet makes a definite impact with her character of Trudy Chacon, a hard-bitten, female marine with a conscience.
James Cameron has made his impact on film many times over with films such as: Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time (which may be surpassed by Avatar); Aliens 2, which changed the Alien saga from a slasher, body-count film into a full adventure/horror story, and more. With Avatar, he ushers in the use of 3D environments in our films, which will change our experiences at the movies from here on out. An amazing accomplishment!
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