James Cameron has not made a feature film since Titantic (1997). He claims to have had this idea since then, but needed to wait for technology to catch up before he could bring this vision of the future to life.
If you think you've heard this story before, you have. George Lucas said he couldn't bring his Star Wars prequels to the big screen until technology caught up. Seeing what was done in Spielberg's Jurassic Park, Lucas thought he could take the first step.
Lucas was able to create spectacularly false landscapes and alien characters that were all digital. Peter Jackson picked up the ball and from there was able to put together his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which made the false and all-digital characters seem even more real. Robert Zemeckis made even more headway with motion capture technology, blending animation and live-action in his Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol movies.
After the recent advances with IMAX and 3D cameras, Cameron finally said that the time was right for him to go back and do Avatar. Cameron has basically taken what all these other bold filmmakers have done and run with it. Of them all, Cameron clearly surpasses and has literally and figuratively done what all this technology begs. He has taken real people into a fake environment and made it seem absolutely real.
The basic premise that Cameron uses isn't new. It's the basic premise of The Matrix and the recent Bruce Willis action film called Surrogates. The minds or the consciousness of real people leave their bodies and enter into another body in a whole other environment. Yes, Cameron conceived this story a decade or so ago, but he's late on arrival.
In the film, a man named Jake Sully, played by new actor Sam Worthington, travels for months in space to a distant planet called Pandora. Humans can exist on the planet, but the air has a toxic gas that will kill them if they breathe too much of it. Grace Augustine, played by Oscar-nominee Sigourney Weaver, is a scientist who has developed alien clones that can breathe the air and that can also hold the minds or consciousness of humans after mixing their DNA. These alien clones are called avatars.
There was some backstory about Sully's brother getting killed and Sully taking his place, but, in the grand scheme, it becomes pointless. Sully puts his mind into the alien clone that was meant for his brother, but little mention of his brother is done after that. Sully's avatar looks like a mix between a Vulcan, a feline and a member of the Blue Man Group. He, along with Augustine who has her own alien clone, venture out into Pandora to explore.
Cameron succeeds in generating beautiful CGI pictures that light up the eyes as well as the screen. The avatars explore what looks like one large, tropical rainforest, filled with new and colorful creatures, all of which seem like they move and glow. Cameron is like a painter here with perhaps the richest palette of any filmmaker in years.
In terms of filmmakers they didn't need to invent some digital fantasyland, Terrence Malick created a movie that had a very similar story to Avatar, only Malick's story was real and predates Cameron's by about 400 years. Malick directed The New World (2005), a film about John Smith meeting Pocahontas.
In Avatar, just substitute Sully for Smith and Neytiri for Pocahontas and you basically have the same thing here. The ending, however, instead of being lyrical and poetic is loud and fast as befitting a Cameron movie like Aliens or Terminator.
The New World, or Dances With the Wolves, or any film made about Native Americans, pretty much sum up what happens to the native alien beings of Pandora. Cameron's tall and lanky, Smurf-like beings that ride flying dragons are metaphorical. Cameron's mcguffin about an expensive rock that humans want to mine on Pandora is very lame. It shows that visually he's gotten better, but, as a writer, Cameron is still thinking as he did 20 years ago and hasn't advanced much.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 42 mins.