I’m feeling very sick today so hopefully this review makes a semblance of sense. If not, blame it on the unicorns dancing around my head right now. Avatar is a watershed movie, one that will redefine the way we talk and feel about contemporary cinema. What the movie misses, of course, is a satisfying plot, which begs the question, does storytelling matter?
Let me first talk about the special FX. Awesome. I saw it in 3-D Imax with my girlfriend and her family, and everyone was on the edge of their seats the entire ride. When Jake Sully and Neytiri, his Na’vi girlfriend ride banshees (pterodactyl-like giant birds) down a steep ledge, I literally felt like I was flying and had to take off my 3-D specs. There were many moments that the blue world of Pandora felt realer to me than anything I had seen on Earth. The director, Cameron took the “digital animation” ball from Pixar and shot a three-pointer. It is a movie made up of mind-melting moments, and for that alone you should go see it.
But what about the plot? It was hard to follow, longish, and filled with unneeded exposition. Stripped of its trappings, the story is both simplistic and predictable. Marine Jake Sully is part of a special project on the planet of Pandora to pacify the Na’vi, whose land rests on an important deposit of unobtanium, whatever that is. He enters an isolation chamber and through his mind, controls a separate Na’vi self, who quickly finds friendship among the tribe. Eventually, they accept “him” (his avatar) as one of their own—he even falls in love with local girl, Neytiri. But what happens when his human patrons decide to attack the Na’vi? What then? Whose side will he choose? Really, guess.
Cameron is a visionary director. He created a world of such beauty and diversity, a mirror-image of our own as strange as any in science fiction, as tantalizing as the Mars of Protazanov’s Aelita, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or even Lucas’ Star Wars-verse. As my buddy Brian pointed out, this is a world that you cannot experience on your laptop. It simply wouldn’t make sense, like coming to the Grand Canyon for the gift shops. You need to experience this one in IMAX to understand it.
Yet Cameron still hasn’t created characters that the audience can care about. Obsessed with surface impressions of Pandora, he has yet to dig deep into his plot to answer some necessary questions. Why is unobtanium so valuable? What became of the Earth? Why should we care about the Na’vi?
Nevertheless, this is a must-see movie, as important to the future of cinema as anything I have seen in the past few years. This could be the moment the movies make a comeback—the possibilities for creating immersive universes like Pandora are endless. Whether or not you get it, you will be drawn in. Yet I still fantasize about the quieter movies, ones less visually stunning that nevertheless are far more interesting. Will fanboys and girls care about a movie that cares about characters as much as FX? For the sake of good cinema, I can only hope so.