Shortly after the success of 1997's Titanic, director James Cameron wanted to make a film called Avatar, planned for release in 1999. The project never saw the light of day because, Cameron says, technology just couldn't keep up with his vision. Twelve years later, now that visual effects have gotten more sophisticated than anyone could have ever imagined, Cameron has decided to share his vision with the world. All 230 million dollars of it.
The question is, does the enormous price tag help make Avatar something worth seeing? Or is this just an expensive tech experiment?
The film follows Jake (Sam Worthington), a marine tasked with exploring the surface of an alien planet, Pandora, and communicating with the natives. Jake gets this position because he has similar genetics to his twin brother, who was a scientist initially picked for the job. To visit Pandora, the scientists and Jake use artificially-created alien bodies as avatars (thus the title).
The aliens -- blue-skinned cat-people made out of advanced CGI and motion capture technology -- are known as the Na'vi (with an apostrophe for decoration). The Na'vi are very spiritual beings who live in a giant tree, worship a god who actually exists, commune with the animals, etc. They are cliched nature-loving aliens through and through.
Humans are the bad guys who want to destroy the aliens' big tree, which is located on a large deposit of valuable "unobtainium" (probably the funniest joke in the movie). The whole avatar program is in place so that scientists can communicate with the Na'vi and tell them to move out of the tree. Why the government would spend billions of dollars developing the avatars instead of just killing all the aliens is never explained.
From there, the film turns into Pochahontas. Jake falls in love with one of the aliens, they have a PG-rated mating ritual, and he turns against the evil humans. Some other sympathetic scientists help Jake to stand up for the Na'vi while a generic antagonist with literally no personality whatsoever rides around in a manga-inspired mecha and tries to destroy the big tree.
It's an environmentalist film, if that was too subtle for you.
Still, even if the story is nothing special, that doesn't mean Avatar is a bad movie. The delivery is a big part of it, too. And with this much money on the table, it's clear that the delivery of this film was a big deal to Cameron. He waited twelve years because 1997 couldn't deliver.
The acting is good. No performance really stands out, but that's the story's fault. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana do most of the movie in motion-capture, which is pretty impressive -- it's hard enough to act in the film industry when you have to do the same scene dozens of times, even harder when you're working against computer-generated creatures that you can't see on the set.
The imagination and design put into the setting is also pretty impressive. None of it is particularly original, but there's clearly been a lot of thought put into fleshing out what's there. The human technology looks very mechanistic and grey, which is played for contrast against the blue-and-green alien motif. The Na'vi themselves are nicely designed. The filmmakers cheated somewhat by making them very humanoid, but it's necessary to make the human-falls-in-love-with-alien plot work. If the Na'vi were any less human, the whole film would have crashed because the audience would no longer be able to believe that Jake could fall in love with one of them.
The CGI is gorgeous, of course. Nothing to complain about there.
I'm torn on exactly what to think about Avatar. It has an incredibly trite story that I find very annoying, but the delivery is actually pretty solid. It is a very well-made film that might be worth seeing for the effects alone. It still leaves me with a sour taste, though. Titantic, at least, had something worth delivering, and that made the delivery much more satisfying. Avatar is frustrating because it has good effects that it doesn't even deserve. It's a very boring and uninspired movie that isn't worth 230 million dollars by any stretch of the imagination.
Had the film been made in a realistic setting -- not as a fantasy with sci-fi flavour -- it wouldn't be half as annoying. The aliens aren't necessary, and the special effects only serve to distract. Just watch the trailer and you'll get the same effect. All the eye-candy without the condescending tree-hugging nonsense.
"Condescending" is the word, really. The aliens and humans are both totally one-note and boring: humans are all evil for no clear reason, and aliens are perfect paragons of good. I find myself rooting for the humans to kill everyone just because the aliens are so perfect and infuriating, and that's where the story really falls apart. Even with the cliche story, it could have come to life with some engaging characters. Avatar doesn't have characters; it has archetypes.
Watch Avatar if you want to see some really cool motion-capture. Don't watch Avatar if you want to see a good movie.