Believe the hype. Avatar goes a long way towards arguing that artistic merit and epic storytelling go together better when you have an visionary at the helm.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-marine who is given a unique opportunity. On the world of Pandora, a corporation has discovered a mineral with fantastic (and profitable) properties. Due to a toxic atmosphere, scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed a mind-linked remote-controlled body to act as an ambassador, an “avatar.” While the intent behind the avatar project is explore the world of Pandora and interact with the local sentient species, the Na’vi, the goal is to make the mineral more accessible to the corporation mining it, even if they have to relocate the native people to do it.
People worry that technology will one day replace the need for actors. Writer/director/producer James Cameron reminds us that people, not technology, are still at the heart of storytelling. To bring the imaginary to life, manipulate it for the sake of a story and blur what’s real into it seamlessly, that has been the goal of many Hollywood types, and Cameron seems to have at last perfected it. Avatar is transporting from beginning to end and meticulously edited to make the story flow and forget about the technique. Much like the original Jurassic Park when people asked where Steven Spielberg found actual living dinosaurs, it isn’t any more of a stretch to believe that the fantastic the world of Pandora does indeed exist. Then there’s the better news: the characters and story are just as believable.
If someone was going to pitch the idea of Avatar to a studio, they might pit two animated features against one another to cover all the elements involved: FernGully: The Last Rainforest being attacked by “Exosquad.” Of course, this is a very generalized description and doesn’t begin to describe the characters themselves. For example, the world the story is set in, an Earth-like moon called Pandora, isn’t just the setting; it’s a character unto itself. Like the characters in the story, Pandora is a world that functions like an ecosystem should, and watching the film through the eyes of the hero, Jake, reveals how connected everything is, even when deadly enemies are pitted against one another. Call it a subtle conservationist message if you will (as opposed to the heavy-handed environmentalist message from the ill-fated remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) but it’s still a good one: take what you need, appreciate what you’ve got, and keep in mind that one day, you, too, will be worm food.
Beyond the special effects and story, Cameron also knows that character is third main ingredient but no less important. Zoe Saldana provides the voice and movement for the native Pandoran we learn from the most, Neytiri, and it isn’t difficult to see why Jake Sully becomes so enchanted (okay, sure, there’s the whole chieftan’s daughter thing… why is it always the princess, hmm?) Sigourney Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine as a tough yet passionate scientist who believes in her work. And Michelle Rodriguez as pilot Trudy Chacon entertains as always… gosh, Mr. Cameron, write strong female characters much? Avatar may be late to the box office party this year, but it’s difficult to think of another film that sets its goals this high and achieves every one of them.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)