In the 12 years since James Cameron last directed a feature film (a little art-house number called “Titanic,” heard of it?), much has changed in the growing field of special effects.
His latest picture, “Avatar,” reflects a filmmaker who’s spent more time polishing his impressive new tools than scraping the rust off of his once extraordinary storytelling instincts. A gargantuan production of obscene technical achievement, “Avatar” is freakishly cold to the touch; the work of man who felt he had to leave a Godzilla-sized footprint on the face of cinema when all the public wanted was simply to have him back in the game he once dominated with regularity.
150 years into the future, corporate and mercenary forces from Earth have set up camp on the planet Pandora, a lush environment home to “unobtainium,” a miracle energy substance hidden underneath the surface. Pandora is home to the Na’vi, a race of 8-foot-tall, cat-like tribal creatures who want little to do with the invading humans. Helping to bridge relations is the scientific “avatar” program, where a human can assume the synthetic body of a Na’vi through a special coffin-like mental device. Signing up for duty is paralyzed marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, “Terminator Salvation”), who, along with scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), heads into the heart of Na’vi nation, bonding with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a fierce princess. Finding acceptance with the Na’vi and joy with his newfound ability to walk, Jake’s sense of duty is tested when troops, led by the wicked Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), head in for the kill, hungry to clear the Na’vi out of their forest home and plunder the natural resources.
I’ll be the first to admit that “Titanic” is a tough act to top. While hardly sitting around his palace drinking cosmos and losing himself in online chess tournaments, Cameron nevertheless laid low for over a decade, popping up here and there with deep-sea exploration documentaries and assorted media appearances. “Avatar” is Cameron’s reintroduction to the gladiatorial arena of blockbuster filmmaking, armed with the sort of technical research on camera equipment to make his latest film an eye-popping return to form, worth the dismayingly extended wait between movies.
Still, while it’s splendid to have Cameron back where he belongs, I fear the “Titanic” explosion has made the man permanently soft; the crack-pipe hit of cultural omnipresence has dulled his edge.
Running an unnecessary 160 minutes in length (it’s not a fleet-footed film), “Avatar” is Cameron endeavoring to serve up another world-dominating, four-course cinematic meal after pulling off unimaginable, unrivaled success with his previous feature. “Titanic” was about embellishing history, “Avatar” is about creating it.
Cameron’s vision inflates to a gigantic scale with this picture, taking the audience on a trip to the mysterious realm of Pandora, as fully realized and colorfully populated an alien planet as I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s a 360-degree portrait of bioluminescent flora that swallows Jake and the Na’vi, lending exceptional splendor and outstanding CG-enabled texture to the film, punctuated by imposing fauna, who stalk the forests hunting for wandering Na’vi to snack on. There’s no doubt that “Avatar” is Cameron’s most brain-bleedingly striking picture to date; an actual formation of a world at play and at war, with Jake as our avatar into an alien landscape teeming with thrilling peril and breathtaking beauty.
Also impressive are the Na’vi, entirely CG-created, mo-cap creatures with the sort of expressive features and behavioral nuances animators will be studying for years to come. Tall, blue beasts with little in the way of clothing, DNA tendrils stored in their hair for immediate USB-plug connection to untamed Pandora wildlife, and a tendency to hiss when backed into a corner, the Na’vi are the centerpiece of “Avatar,” representing Cameron’s technical triumph and his needed foothold into the larger Vietnam allegory of the film. The Na’vi are peaceful beings, spiritually one with nature; they’re a feral force of indigenous determination, and a visual exclamation point within a film of consistently astonishing special effect achievement.
What Cameron does with all these buzzing ones and zeros leads to a thwack of disappointment with the final product. While teeming with fantastical sights and sounds, “Avatar” remains a leaden viewing experience. Cameron, feeling empowered by the heavily rewarded simplicity of “Titanic,” scripts “Avatar” with a fragrant magic marker, crudely contrasting the angelic Na’vi with the gung-ho mercenaries, lead by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), a maniacal corporate stooge who wants to steamroll Pandora and inhale all of its natural resources. There are no shades of gray permitted in the film, only graceless representations of black and white, brought to life through a few dreary performances (Worthington hasn’t developed anything in the way of a screen presence yet and Lang is cringingly hammy in the wild-eyed, G.I. Joe role) and a script fueled by pathetically amateurish dialogue.
Because there’s such a colossal amount of money pumped into the film, Cameron finger-paints in primary colors to appease the widest possible audience, ditching any hope for a soulful emotional connection to Jake and the Na’vi. “Avatar” is consumed with bigness, not sophistication; the demand for awe starts to grind the film down after the introductory, new-car-smell period, soon left with only one-dimensional characters making predictable choices while the backgrounds flashdance to stave off dramatic inertia.
Cameron saves his big guns for the finale, pitting machine vs. Na’vi in a battle for the future of Pandora. Sure, there’s plenty of futuristic military hardware to marvel over, but the film’s conscience is absurdly overstated (along with its explosions and exposition), muting the impact of the spectacle, scored anemically by James Horner, who doesn’t provide any sort of heroic or cautionary theme to savor throughout the film. A shame.
OK, so “Avatar” is here to challenge the potential of a home theater presentation, right? The AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) is an all-around stunner, allowing the viewer an opportunity to study the richly ambitious environments of Pandora, while also allowing a chance to appreciate Cameron’s filmmaking tricks. Detail and color are extraordinary, with Na’vi life brought into full blue bloom, showcasing the nuances of the animation and design crisply and directly. This being a 2-D release, the BD has the benefit of pronounced imagery, while the picture’s 3-D exhibition tended to darken the cinematography to suit the format. Here, everything is bright and bold, with the tiniest scraps of performance and artistry displayed in their entirety. From bumps on noses to the larger living community of Pandora, the BD preserves the details delightfully. Shadow detail is also healthy and respectful. The live-action material is equally as crystalline, but the limits of the greenscreen technology are easily observed. Not a problem, but a reality. “Avatar” is an immense movie requiring an immense presentation, and while the BD domesticates the viewing experience, this fresh look at the enormous creative effort is worth a peek. It might even surprise those addicted to a 3-D Pandora.
The 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix matches the visual experience masterfully, giving the listener a fully immersive sound environment that cares for every last dimension of the track. LFE response is delightfully active, with plenty of rumbles to accompany the heroics, while the final act of war explodes with dynamic energy. Surrounds are a dream, filled to the brim with the sounds of Pandora, the chirps and echo of military movement, and the woosh of the action beats, creating a swirling feel of community that keeps the listener engaged. Dialogue is crisp, with English and Na’vi keeping ahead of the chaos, always easy to understand. Scoring is used well, full-throated when the time calls, lending a few sequences their rightful awe. Directional effects are everywhere (weapons sound dynamite) and effective, but silence is also sustained, befitting the few moments of reflection found in the film. English DVS, French, Spanish, and Portuguese tracks are also available.
English SDH, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are offered.
None. So I hope you have some deep pockets, “Avatar” fans, because something tells me James Cameron is going to milk this picture for everything it’s worth.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
“Avatar” is a tremendous disappointment, but perhaps only a mediocre film. Again, I’m grateful James Cameron has decided to return from the void, back making movies where he belongs. However, it’s tough to shake the thought that after 12 years of dormancy, this is the best script James Cameron could come up with? All the ornate animation and trickery can hardly hide that fact that “Avatar” is a hollow, coldly executed misfire.Rating: C