"Avatar" is an experience, more than a film. The story is not the most original (I have seen two comparisons of how closely the story matches two other popular films, and I have been told there are more) but the same could be said of "Titanic", Cameron's last film. What sets the filmmaker's works apart from others is the scale of the canvas he tells these stories on and the craft he uses to tell these stories. It almost seems like he wants to get the story hammered down so he can start to concentrate on the other elements involved and craft a really great film. In "Titanic", he recreates the large cruise ship's only sailing to tell the story of two young lovers traveling across the Atlantic to what they hope will be new beginnings. Of course, they don't arrive in America as planned, but the story remains an indelible and romantic film. It also launched both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into a new era of their careers. As you know, it became the highest grossing film of all time. Until "Avatar"…
So, it took some time for Cameron to come up with a follow-up. As the story goes, he went to a couple of his visual effects partners to talk about this project and they stated they were at least ten years away from being able to tell the story he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it. What does Cameron do? He waits. And develops technology of his own to help improve the motion capture technology he would use, the same technology Robert Zemeckis ("Polar Express", "Beowulf", "A Christmas Carol") has been using for some time. The difference is Cameron has taken this technology to a new level, giving all of the characters more life and more human reactions, movements and expressions.
It is also, in my mind, the first film to fully embrace the 3-D technology in a way that adds to the film. In many 3-D offerings, the 3-D enhances the look and feel of the film, adding dimension and depth to buildings, walks, etc. In "Avatar", the 3-D helps make the action scenes more exciting and visceral. It reminds me of the 3-D films of the 50s. "House of Wax" opens with a busker hitting a ping-pong ball to get the attention of people walking by. A few times, he hits the ball at the camera and people in the audience were said to flinch back because they thought the ball was coming at them. In "Avatar", there are a few moments when the characters are riding on these winged beasts and the 3-D camera work seems to scream, "Look at me" but in a good way. You actually get a feeling for the flight of these creatures and it makes an exhilarating experience.
Jake Scully (Sam Worthington, "Terminator Salvation", the upcoming "Clash of the Titans" remake) is a paraplegic former Marine who steps in and takes over an assignment meant for his twin brother. He is going to travel to Pandora, a planet holding a necessary and valuable resource for Earth. Given the Earth needs the new power supply, they have already set up a colony on Pandora, to mine the resource. But the indigenous people, the Na'vi, blue skinned creatures standing seven and eight feet tall, are fighting back, trying to save their planet. Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), sympathetic to the Na'Vi, has come up with a program in which Avatars are used by real people to enter and hopefully help the people who are indigenous to the planet. They want the Na'Vi to relocate to allow easier access to the valuable and necessary mineral the humans of Earth need. The government and the private contractor they have hired are becoming impatient and want to move things along, so they decide to use trained Maries. The assignment is attractive to Jake because it allows him an escape from his wheelchair, giving him the freedom he craves and misses, even if only while using his Na'Vi Avatar. He quickly meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a fierce warrior who doesn't trust Jake at first. But Jake begins to help the Na'Vi in ways his boss, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) doesn't like.
I have seen comparisons of this basic story to both "Dances with Wolves" and "Pocahontas" and I have heard of many more. Most films made today could fall under the same scrutiny. It is very difficult, at this point, to tell a completely original story. What is important for me is how the screenwriter, director and actors make the new project their own. In "Avatar", Cameron creates a completely new world with the same skill and expertise he has used on every one of his previous films. While watching "The Abyss", I often feel I am trapped in the underwater vessel along with Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Every time I watch "Aliens", I feel like I am at Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) side as she battles the Alien. In "Terminator 2", I feel like I am along for the ride with Ahnuld, Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong, personally invested in stopping Judgment Day. That is Cameron's gift. He gives his characters such insurmountable tasks we can't help but find them intense. Their intensity makes them more interesting and believable. We feel every moment of pain they go through as they try to meet these seemingly impossible goals.
He is also one of the few filmmakers who seem to invest as much in his characters and story as he does in the special effects. Cameron is a very creative filmmaker and doesn't care if he pushes the boundaries of what can be done with special effects. The 'water sprite' in "The Abyss" was created with new technology and this same technology was further refined to create the T-1000 for "Terminator 2". As mentioned before, when he first came up with the idea for this film, he had to wait for the technology to develop and to create some of his own magic to aid in the process.
To give you an idea of the kind of magic Cameron has created here, a number of top Hollywood filmmakers, including Spielberg and Peter Jackson visited the set during production, eager to check out the new technology.
As Jake becomes more invested in the Na'Vi people, we learn more about their lives and their culture. All of the people have these long ponytails they use to connect to the animals and their planet. When they are using these large winged animals for battle and transportation, they connect their ponytails to them and they form a symbiotic relationship. Neytiri also shows Jake how to use the ponytail to connect to the planet, the fibers seem to intertwine with the roots of trees. And all of these lead to a larger parable about the environment. The Na'Vi people are trying to protect their unique and beautiful planet. The humans are trying to mine a valuable resource and don't really care if they destroy it; Earth needs this mineral to continue to survive.
There is a scene late in the film in which we come upon a large gathering of Na'Vi, sitting cross-legged in front of the "Tree of Life". All of the people plugged in with their ponytails, swaying back and forth, chanting, the blue palette glowing with the rhythm of the music. This scene initially struck me as a little too 'hippy dippy', but somehow Cameron managed to make me quickly forget it and I became even more involved in the story.
Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that this film is an experience that needs to be seen to give it justice. Nothing I can describe or discuss would adequately impart anything that can do the film justice.
Perhaps even more important? The film doesn't feel like it is two hours and forty plus minutes long, it feels shorter.
And when you see it, please see it in 3-D. IMAX 3-D is even better. You won't regret it.