“Avatar” is what a blockbuster should be. Stunning visual effects, explosive action, dauntless heroes, and dastardly villains all collide in a classic, albeit overused, storyline (think “Dances with Wolves” but with tall blue aliens and flying dragons). The level of detail and creativity surrounding the look of director James Cameron’s new world is simply astonishing – from the colorful fauna lining the forests to the gargantuan beasts that inhabit them. Even the slender humanoid “Na’vi” designs quickly reveal their genius; and the numerous military machines provide plenty of awe. Seeing the film in 3-D is the icing on the cake as it further focuses the viewer on the incredible visuals that already dwarf previous efforts in mimicking realism. In fact, it’s these nearly faultless CG effects that allow one to so easily accept a world full of floating mountains, stingray dragons, and giant blue natives. Some will argue that it wasn’t worth the wait (it’s been 18 years since Cameron’s last entry in the science-fiction genre) – but the visuals definitely seem ahead of their time.
When his brother is senselessly murdered, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora (the year is 2154 and, for some odd reason, he’s in a standard hand-operated wheelchair). There, he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. Essentially, he controls the avatar creature with his mind, inhabiting it as if it were his own body. As Jake begins to bond with the local tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.
“Avatar” is certainly not a great film, but the elements of technology generously scattered throughout are of the absolute grandest ever seen in motion picture. From the spacecrafts floating in the sky to the dropships entering the atmosphere to the forest-covered planet Pandora to the massive machinery mining the earth, “Avatar” spares not a single detail. No background creature, flying jellyfish, monstrous dragon, or slender blue alien is without the most impressive, jaw-droppingly lifelike computer graphics imaginable, giving it that extra bit of utter realism. Most blockbusters are disappointing when they’re nothing but special effects, but “Avatar’s” visual imagery and computer animation are so beyond anything seen before, so technologically advanced, and so colossal in scale that it would have been unsatisfactory if it was anything but 99% CG.
The acting could be better, the dialogue is stale, and the character designs stink of “Aliens’” Colonial Marines. Cameron has recycled the power loader as well, even after the “Matrix” trilogy used it for the APU hydraulic power suits, and the primitive, aboriginal humanoid Na’vi don’t shout of originality. The plot resembles the basic storyline of the last several animated science-fiction features: “Planet 51,” “Battle for Terra,” “Delgo,” “Kaena: The Prophecy,” and even “District 9” or “Fern Gully.” It can also be compared to every other fish-out-of-water, “Romeo and Juliet” patterned script, with a lead character who realizes the adversary isn’t the real villain, and with allies who make the alien the enemy to justify stealing their stuff. But with the indescribable amount of graphics and the unbelievably epic scope of Cameron’s return to his best genre, the uniqueness of the story barely even matters. “Avatar” is an achievement in computer imagery so mind-bogglingly futuristic and stunningly beautiful that it demands to be seen on the big screen, in 3D, and more than once.