Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar (****)

Avatar. 163 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Joel David Moore, Stephen Lang, and Sigourney Weaver.

You've got to hand it to James Cameron. In the age of On Demand, Netflix, Hulu, high-def televisions, Blu-Ray, and iTunes, Cameron is still making movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. Avatar is his first narrative feature since 1997's Titanic. He's been gone a while, and expectations were high for Avatar, especially given all the hype surrounding the groundbreaking special effects and 3D technology. If judged only on those merits, Avatar is outstanding. There are huge segments of the movie that are completely CGI and not once do you think that you're watching an animated movie. The camera movement, the performance capture of the actors, and the environments are all rendered with a breathtaking realism. Almost $300 million was spent making Avatar, and it all shows on screen. Cameron certainly gives audiences their money's worth. If there's a flaw with Avatar, it's in the story. Derivative and overfamiliar, it basically takes the plot structure of Dances with Wolves and adds a heavy dose of science fiction/fantasy. Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who steps in for his deceased brother to inhabit the replicant of a bright blue, native species known as the Na'vi on the planet Pandora. His mission to infiltrate and investigate the Na'vi is soon thwarted as he develops a romantic relationship with one of the natives (Zoe Saldana) and starts to question the military tactics of his commanders. It all leads to a big showdown between humans and Na'vi, with the outcome easily predictable. But while the story may lack surprise, it doesn't hamper one's enjoyment of the movie. The visual elements of Avatar (production design, sound, visual effects, costume/character design, acting) are so strong that they overwhelm everything else. Cameron may not be the greatest storyteller, but he is a smart one, and he stages action scenes better than almost anybody else working today. Avatar is designed to appeal to everyone, and it will. It's a mass market blockbuster, pulled off with heart and brains, and you'd be foolish not to pay money to see this one in the theater. For better or worse, true EVENT movies are few and far between these days. It's nice to know that at least one filmmaker out there is still trying to make them.

- John


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