James Cameron's Avatar sort of had the odds stacked against it from the get-go, not because of anything the film itself did right or wrong, but because it could have been the greatest movie ever made and still not measured up to sheer entertainment of the online buildup to its release. First came months of nonstop hype. Then came the backlash. Then came the counter-backlash. Then it all just descended into a months-long, hilarious and perpetually expanding flame war, with whiners bitching that the story was just "Dances With Wolves in space" (or, as I like to think of it, "The Last Samurai in space"), and nerds responding with death threats, because nerds don't cope well with contrary opinions.
But blocking all that out and sitting in the theater with mind blank, the root of the gripes certainly rings true: Avatar's story — a soldier gradually finds himself sympathizing with his less-technologically advanced but spiritually purer enemies — is one that has been told before, both in award-winning big-budget films with top stars and in probably dozens of novels, just this time on another planet and with a dash of The Matrix in the way the characters plug into their avatar aliens. But the other, more important truth is that that doesn't matter.
I'm an enormous believer in the simple philosophy that, when it comes to fiction, it's not what it's about that's important, but how it's about it. That's why one film about a mall cop can be lowest common denominator crap while another is subversive genius, one single-night comedy about high school nerds trying to get laid can be dreadful to the point of unwatchability while another is one of the funniest films of the decade, and one hard sci-fi about space travel can be a frightful bore while another is a minor masterpiece. And the reason that Avatar works fantastically even in light of its familiar story and character arcs is because in the planet of Pandora we've been given one the single best onscreen realizations of an alien planet in the history of stuff being on screens.
I've lauded many a film for raw ambition, even in light of more concrete failures. But Avatar does one better; even more important than ambition, it's constructed with genuine love. Watching the film, there can be absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that James Cameron loves Pandora, loved elaborately conceiving its flora and fauna, its people, its language, its religion, its culture, and its freaky, majestic floating mountains, and did everything in his power to bring his giddily constructed mental image to the screen. That kind of enthusiasm rubs off on me. I'm not gonna say that it's the best alien planet we'll ever seen (not even that it's the best we have seen, that's something I'd need to ponder further), but I'll go ahead and say that a possibly insurmountable bar has been set for forest / jungle-themed planets. It'll certainly make going back to the shot-in-some-California-woods forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi tough to get excited about again.
Of course it goes without saying that Avatar has the tiny advantage of a half-billion dollars of CGI thrown at it. Accordingly, this is one of the greatest pure visual feasts ever projected onto a screen, a constantly surprising and exotic world filled with plants and trees and mountains more gorgeous than anything that exists in our boring old real world. Old school Hollywood magic taken to the nth degree. And perhaps even more importantly, the superior quality of the CGI has allowed the digital aliens we spend most of the movie with to completely sidestep the dreaded uncanny valley: they look expressive, inquisitive, emotional, real. Like Spider-Man and most of the decade's other onscreen superheroes, there's occasionally a lack of weight when they're leaping around, but the mere fact that you can look at a tight closeup of these blue cat people and remain fully immersed in what they're saying rather than thinking about the ones and zeroes they're made up of is laudable.
As for James Cameron's slightly hyperbolic claims that Avatar was going to forever change the face of 3D... we'll see. In truth, the film doesn't do anything with the fundamentals of 3D technology that the four thousand other 3D films this year didn't, the difference is that it implements them in an actual good movie with a high budget rather than the B-horror schlock and kid's cartoon ghetto they've been segregated to until now. Time (and Avatar's box office gross) will tell what kind of impact this has on blockbuster filmmaking, but as for the film itself, the 3D definitely does help give shape to the world and helps give us arguably the most immersive giant battle scenes since the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Giant battle scenes have become a bit cliché in the seven years since Peter Jackson gave us the biblical battle at Helm's Deep — sometimes done extraordinarily well, such as in the aforementioned The Last Samurai, sometimes as yawn and glassy stare-inducing as in Troy — but Avatar takes it up to eleven with marines and mechs and gunships taking on aliens and giant birds and dragons in one hell of a war sequence. Unless you've been diagnosed with AIDS in the last 24 hours the profoundly epic scale of these battle scenes will take you straight out of all your real-world problems and leave you staring wide-eyed and struck dumb at the screen for their duration. Awesome stuff.
But what good is a wicked onscreen battle if you don't care about any of the characters engaged in the melee? I believe that in the best films (or TV shows or books or whatever), regardless of genre, story and character are in equal harmony. That is to say, it neither seems like the writer came up with a cool narrative and then thrust some meat sacks in there to carry it along (think the entire Final Destination franchise), nor does it seem like they had a few characters they liked and then wrapped a story around them rather than having it evolve from them (I love the new Star Trek movie, but no one will argue that removed from the iconic characters it's a narrative that needed telling). Avatar balances these elements skillfully.
The worldbuilding is brilliant and the story of the corporations and natives fighting over Pandora, while told in broad strokes with its messages blunt as a battleaxe, is absorbing (not to mention that it basically casts the tree-hugging environmentalists as heroes versus corporations and the military as villains, which makes me giddy with excitement to hear how angry the right-wing radio machine will become when they get wind of the film). But the character arc of the protagonist marine Jake Sully, while, yes, basically the same arc as Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, is also entertaining and moving. I wouldn't say he's my favorite sci-fi protagonist of the year — District 9's Wikus Van De Merwe was ultimately more compelling if only because he started out in a darker place than Jake, who is basically heroic from his first second onscreen — but Jake's story holds its own against the more epic tale of Pandora's fate, with neither story feeling like its sapping desired screentime from the other.
Jake is played by Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington, who seemed to emerge from nowhere with a bunch of leading roles this year (he's also the lead in 2010's Clash of the Titans). He gets the job done, but ultimately, Avatar is not an actor's vehicle. The performances are just "there," so to speak, all good with none being outstanding (even Sigourney Weaver, although I do love seeing her onscreen again... hottest woman over 60 alive?), with one big exception: Stephen Lang is fucking great as Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head military man who would just as soon wipe all the aliens out. He embodies the ruthless professionalism of his character with such ferocity that you'll grin every time he's onscreen and be disturbed at how damn much you'll find yourself liking a genocidal madman. I'm really curious if the role was written for him, because he seems born for it. I doubt it'll happen, but I would give a hoot of approval if Lang got a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Between the great worldbuilding, staggering special effects, epic story, awesome battles, solid hero, and wickedly entertaining villain, what Avatar is above all else is space opera done right. Anyone who is even slightly a fan of genre fiction needs to see it, and it's a movie that begs to be seen on the biggest goddamn screen in town. I'm already preemptively nervous about Cameron's announced plans for two sequels, because we've all wished at some point or another that people would just leave well enough alone, but then again, Cameron did make two of the greatest sci-fi sequels of all time in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens, so who knows? That Avatar very nearly lives up to years of fever pitch hype is remarkable, and it's one I'll definitely be watching again over the years.
Alternately, you can disregard this entire review and replace it with the following: How are there waterfalls flowing off of the floating mountains? Where is the water coming from?! How are there waterfalls flowing off of the floating mountains?!!!
4 Stars out of 5