Avatar (2009)


Director:  James Cameron
Cast:  Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Plot:  A paraplegic marine dispatched to the planet Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi
Awards:  Won 3 Oscars - Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects.  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Score.
Runtime:  162min
Rating:  PG for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.

There is nothing that has not been said with regards to the return of the king.  After twelve years out in the ‘wilderness’ directing deep sea documentaries such as Ghosts Of The Abyss (2003) and Aliens Of The Deep (2005), and pushing the envelope on CG, 3-D, and motion-capture animation technology... 

James “I am king of the world!” Cameron is back to epic feature filmmaking with Avatar, a science-fiction extravaganza of sight and sound that is the brainchild of one of the world’s most technically accomplished filmmakers of the last three decades with an envious filmography that reads The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), and Titanic (1997).

Directed, written, co-produced, and co-edited by Cameron, Avatar comes with enormous pressure to deliver.  With a budget ranging anywhere from US$250M to US$500M (let’s not play the guessing game), it is the most expensive film to date.  If there is one filmmaker in the world who can fully justify the use of such an obscene amount of greenbacks, it is Cameron.  Every single dollar is put up there on the big screen.

Avatar is a simple story of war versus peace, human versus alien, a modern species versus an indigenous tribe.  It draws influences from numerous films (apart from Cameron’s own), most notably Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) and Castle In The Sky (1986).

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) plays a paraplegic ex-marine who replaces his dead brother by using his custom-made avatar, mind-controlling a three-meter tall alien with blue skin and identifiable human features to blend in with the Na’vi, the indigenous tribe of Pandora, a world of stunning natural beauty. 

The humans or Sky People as unaffectionately called by the Na’vi is hell bent on clearing the forests of Pandora to excavate rocks potentially worth many times more than Avatar’s film budget.  Sully finds love in Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the gorgeous but fearless Na’vi daughter of a tribe head.  She slowly warms up to his peaceful intentions, teaching him the ways of her culture.  Torn between his race and the Na’vi, Jake must decide on his own destiny.

Avatar is an entirely original concept pieced together by elements borrowed heavily from other films.  The result is a narrative that is fresh but predictable.  Many will be familiar with such a story but it is the experience that counts. Cameron delivers a tremendously captivating film experience for all of its 160 minutes. 

Because there is an emotional core formed by the relationship between Jake and Neytiri, the visuals never take center stage.  In fact, they only enhance our appreciation of Pandora and our connection toward the Na’vi.  There is something at stake here.  Who lives and dies matters unlike in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (2009) or Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009).

Avatar features an outstanding score by James Horner that deserves to be nominated for an Oscar.  He captures the magic of Pandora and the thrilling spectacle by alternating between an enchanting soundscape and soaring themes. 

Speaking of Oscars, Avatar will win, hands down, the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and is likely to be nominated in other technical areas such as sound and cinematography.  The big question is will Avatar be a Best Picture nominee?  And will James Cameron receive his second directing nomination?

The major problem I (as a die-hard Cameron fan) have with Avatar is the film’s lack of significant action suspense.  Cameron has a reputation for delivering white-knuckle excitement as characterized in films such as Aliens and T2, but this element is sorely lacking here.  Because for most parts Avatar is rendered with CGI, the action sequences seem ‘fake’ despite being photorealistic. 

There was a time when Cameron made gritty, realistic, balls-to-the-wall action set-pieces.  That time has passed.  I still admire Avatar as a film experience. B ut having said that, I feel this is Cameron’s weakest work after True Lies.  He retains his crown, but only a CG one.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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