By Todd McCarthy/Variety
The King of the World sets his sights on creating another world entirely in "Avatar," and it's very much a place worth visiting. The most expensive and technically ambitious film ever made, James Cameron's long-gestating epic pitting Earthly despoilers against a forest-dwelling alien race delivers unique spectacle, breathtaking sights, narrative excitement and an overarching anti-imperialist, back-to-nature theme that will play very well around the world, and yet is rather ironic coming from such a technology-driven picture. Twelve years after "Titanic," which still stands as the all-time B.O. champ, Cameron delivers again with a film of universal appeal that just about everyone who ever goes to the movies will need to see.
Cameron reportedly wrote the story, if not the full script, for "Avatar" at least 15 years ago but decided he had to wait until visual effects capabilities advanced sufficiently to credibly render his imagined world and its inhabitants. On this fundamental level, the picture is a triumph; it's all of a piece, in no way looking like a vague mish-mash of live-action, CGI backdrops, animation, performance capture and post-production effects. On top of that, the 3D is agreeably unemphatic, drawing the viewer into the action without calling attention to itself. The third dimension functions as an enhancement, not a raison d'etre, so the film will look perfectly fine without it. (When it opens domestically on Dec. 15, approximately 2100 screens will feature 3D, with another 1200 in 2D.)
Then there's the appearance of the indigenous Na'vi clan. In the wake of the still photographs, trailers and 15-minute appetizer offered up by Fox in recent months, a certain wait-and-see reaction could be felt that raised mild doubts about how physically appealing the protagonists would be. But once they're introduced in the context of the picture, these blue-skinned, yellow-eyed creatures quickly become captivating, even sexy, with their rangy height, slim and elongated bodies and skimpy wardrobe, and the grace and dexterity with which they move.
A few more lines of exposition might have helped explain why, in the year 2154 (according to the press notes), Earthlings, represented exclusively, for some reason, by the United States armed forces, need to travel light years away to Pandora to mine a precious mineral that will help rescue the planet from ecological disaster. (Does the U.S. now rule the world? Or is this nation, exclusively, concerned about the environment? Is it the only country left? Or is it simply the best villain for global consumption?)
After the death of his identical-twin scientist brother, wheelchair-bound former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes his place to become an Avatar, a hybrid being that combines human DNA with that of the Na'vi; achieving the Avatar status occurs under lab conditions, with the subject experiencing his or her alternate state as if in a dream. The official hope is that negotiations can help persuade the natives to move aside and allow further exploitation of their land, although hawkish mission commander Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) enlists the gung ho Jake's help as his personal military spy.
Early glimpses of the intergalactic spaceship, weightless crew members and Avatars floating in liquid-filled cylinders are mere teasers for the wonders awaiting on Pandora itself. Unlike most sci-fi and action films, which seem compelled by formula to kick off with a slam-bang opening and then punctuate things with more mayhem every 20 minutes or so, "Avatar" more gently escorts the viewer into its new world while utilizing a classical three-act structure.
Unavoidable Vietnam vibes emanate from the scenes of futuristic choppers descending upon the verdant jungles and mountainsides of Pandora, a land filled with exotic insects, giant airborne reptiles and birds, dinosaur-like beasts and fearsome, dog-like attack animals. Separated from his scientific companion and fellow Avatar Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and stranded at night, Jake is rescued from becoming a midnight snack by Na'vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who subsequently shows the interloper around and very gradually warms to him as he demonstrates an aptitude for native ways.
Cameron's extensive experience on deep-water ocean dives, which resulted in a couple of Imax 3D documentaries, no doubt influenced the glowing, luminous nature of some of the plant life and floating seeds that waft through the environment's atmosphere, while the grander landscapes offer staggering vistas of places that are perhaps most reminiscent of South America, just as the Na'vi most strongly call to mind the natives of the Americas in their customs and tribal manners. For their language, which is extensively spoken with subtitled translation, Cameron had a professor, Paul Frommer, invent a tongue of more than 1,000 words from scratch, although Neytiri, among others, has previously learned pretty good English from Grace.
Although the young Na'vi males resent him, Jake learns quickly and earns his stripes by successfully piloting a giant flying banshee. After three months, however, just as the colonel is ready to send his young charge back home, Jake crosses over and, inspired by his intimacy with Neytiri, goes native. It's "A Man Called Horse" all over again, with Jake, believing he can help the clan repel the invaders, taking up the role of a resistance leader against overwhelming odds.
Final stretch is devoted to the ferocious battle between the Earthly maurauders, with their huge airborne battleships and mighty arsenal, and the nearly naked home team, armed mostly with bows and arrows. Despite the latter fighting on friendly terrain, the mismatch is just too great, and the way things pan out strikes the one somewhat discordant dramatic note in the picture, resulting in a bit of final-reel deflation; surely, a more complex but believable climax and aftermath could have been found.
Thematically, the film also plays too simplistically into stereotypical evil-white-empire/virtuous-native cliches, especially since the invaders are presumably on an environmental rescue mission on behalf of the entire world, not just the U.S. Script is rooted very much in a contemporary eco-green mindset, which makes its positions and the sympathies it encourages entirely predictable and unchallenging.
On an experiential level, however, "Avatar" is all-enveloping and transporting, with Cameron & Co.'s years of R&D paying off with a film that, as his work has done before, raises the technical bar and throws down a challenge for the many other filmmakers toiling in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. The lead team from Weta in New Zealand as well as the numerous other visual-effects and animation firms involved have done marvelous and exacting work, a compliment that extends to every other craft and technical contribution on view.Playing a grunt in a crewcut before his transformation, Worthington is tough, gruff and assertive as the genetic pioneer turned insurrectionist, while Saldana proves her mettle as yet another kickass Cameron heroine. Lang, already seen to great advantage this year in "Public Enemies," is a relentless militarist par excellence, while Weaver, looking great wearing a Stanford T-shirt, no doubt a personal touch by the alum, is wonderfully authoritative as a scientist so unimpeachable that she can get away with smoking on board an intergalactic spaceship. (English, Na'vi dialogue)
Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, HD, 3D), Mauro Fiore; editors, Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua, Cameron; music, James Horner; production designer, Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg; supervising virtual art director, Yuri Bartoli; lead supervising art director, Kim Sinclair; supervising art directors, Kevin Ishioka, Stefan Dechant, Todd Cherniawsky; virtual production art directors, Andrew L. Jones, Norm Newberry; art directors, Nick Bassett, Rob Bavin, Simon Bright, Jill Cormack, Sean Haworth, Andrew Menzies, Andy McLaren; costume designers, Mayes C. Rubeo, Deborah L. Scott; sound (Dolby/DTS), Jim Tanenbaum, William B. Kaplan; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Christopher Boyes; re-recording mixers, Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson; senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; Weta visual effects supervisors, Stephen Rosenbau, Eric Saindon, Dan Lemmon, Guy Williams; ILM visual effects supervisor, John Knoll; visual effects and animation, Weta Digital, Industrial Light & Magic, Prime Focux; visual effects, Framestore, Hybride, Hydraulx, BUF; animation supervisors, Richard Baneham, Andrew R. Jones; ILM animation supervisor, Paul Kavanagh; visual effects supervisors, John Bruno, Steven Quale; performance capture technology and production services, Giant Studios; conceptual design, costume and specialty props, Richard Taylor; Stan Winston character design supervisor, John Rosengrant; lead creature designer, Neville Page; vehicle designer, Tyruben Ellingson; initial creature concepts, Wayne Barlowe; Na'vi language created by Paul Frommer; stunt coordinators, Garrett Warren (U.S.), Stu Thorpe, Allan Poppleton (New Zealand); associate producer, Janace Tashjian; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; L.A. unit camera, Vince Pace; casting, Margery Simkin; initial casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Dec. 10, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 163 MIN.
By Andrew Pulver (The Guardian)
Any lingering suspicions that James Cameron has become the Al Gore of Hollywood will be firmly extinguished by his new, monstrously-hyped creation. For a while, it looked like he was giving us a reasonably sweet-natured blockbuster, suggesting that the natural world has, like, the power to heal us all, or something. Then Cameron sends in the helicopter gunships and starts blowing shit up, big time. Way to undermine your own message.
Avatar, for anyone who's had their head in the sand for the last few months, is the first film in over a decade from the man behind Titanic, still the all-time box-office champ. The success of that film presumably allowed Cameron to write his own cheques for this one, and it's a project that's been stewing on the back burner for at least as long, waiting for the special-effects industry to catch up.
And whatever the truth behind the rumoured hundreds of millions spent on it, Cameron certainly gives Hollywood a lot of bang for its buck. Avatar, in all conscience, looks fantastic – a near-seamless melding of fantasy extraterrestrial landscapes and cutting edge computer-generated imagery, all inserted beautifully into the high-testosterone camerawork which Cameron has made his specialty.
But what is this highest-of-high-end image-making aimed at? Cameron has constructed a fable that combines militarist sci-fi, alarmingly vacuous eco-waffle and an intra-species love story that is presumably designed to cover all the bases. The central character is one Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who is assigned to a mining colony on the alien world of Pandora, where he joins a band of nerdy scientists trying to establish friendly relations with the locals; this they hope to achieve by fusing their brains with specially developed beings (the "avatars" of the title) that are a blend of human and alien DNA.
The locals turn out to be spindly blue 10-foot humanoids with distractingly twitchy ears – suggestions that Avatar is somehow channelling Ferngully are not all that wide of the mark. Sully quickly falls for the non-specific mystical rabbitings of the tribe, involving memory-harbouring trees, intimate relationships with flying lizards, and other such prog-rock-influenced stylings. It really is like a Yes album cover come to life.
Sully's position is made considerably more tricky by the genocidal glee of his human military commander, who – in a plot move shamelessly similar to Cameron's earlier film, Aliens – is prepared to cause mass casualties in the service of the sleazy mining-corporation executive.
There are heavy-handed attempts to implant contemporary references (at one point, the marines are told to fight "terror with terror"), but there's no mistaking what Avatar is taking aim at: the founding myth of America, and the incursions of European colonists into indigenous civilisations. The Na'vi, the tribe with whom Sully fetches up, are a sort of grab-bag of generic tribal characteristics – a little bit African, a little bit Amerindian, the equivalent of one of those worldbeat restaurants that serve up teriyaki tortilla and the like.
To his credit, Cameron is a skilful narrative organiser, and fairly soon he has you rooting for the aliens, not those pesky human invaders. (This may not be the most tasteful approach though, to use on an American audience that still doesn't appear to feel especially guilty about what happened to the indigenous people on their own continent.)
Be that as it may, Avatar tries to have it both ways, to be preachy and a thrill-ride at the same time. I can't in all honesty say it pulls it off – it's baggy, longwinded and, for all the light-speed imagery, just not quick on its feet. Cameron used to be the tautest film-maker around, but he just got slack.
• Avatar is released on 17 December
By Jake Coyle/AP
When a film brashly asserts that it will change moviemaking forever, one feels the urge to either take its "king of the world" arrogance down a notch or hail it as the masterpiece it claims to be.
But — and forgive us if this sounds too much like the dialogue in President Obama's war room — what if there's a third option?
James Cameron's 3-D "Avatar" has all the smack of a Film Not To Miss — a movie whose effects are clearly revolutionary, a spectacle that millions will find adventure in. But it nevertheless feels unsatisfying and somehow lacks the pulse of a truly alive film.
"Avatar" takes place in the year 2154 on the faraway moon of Pandora, where, befitting its mythological name, the ills of human life have been released. The Earth depleted, humans have arrived to mine an elusive mineral, wryly dubbed Unobtainium.
The Resources Developmental Administration, a kind of military contractor, is running the operation. At the top of the chain of command is the CEO-like Carter Selfridge (an excellent, ruthless Giovanni Ribisi), who's hellbent on showing quarterly profits for shareholders. His muscle and head of security is the rock-jawed Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who curses Pandora's inhabitants (the Na'vi) as savages and considers the place worse than hell.
In fact, it's a paradise. In Pandora, Cameron has fashioned a sensual, neon-colored, dreamlike world of lush jungle, gargantuan trees and floating mountains. Its splendor is easily the most wondrous aspect of "Avatar."
Cameron, like the deep sea diver that he is (his only films since 1997's "Titanic" have been underwater documentaries), lets his camera peer with fascination at the glow-in-the-dark plant life, the six-legged horses and — especially beautiful — the nighttime frog-like creatures that, when touched, open a bright white sail and spiral into the air.
It's this sense of discovery — in Pandora, in the wizardry of the filmmaking — that makes "Avatar" often thrilling.
Our main character is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a brawny former Marine who lost the power of his legs in battle on Earth. His scientist twin brother has just died and Sully, having a matching genome, is invited to replace him in a mission to Pandora.
He joins a small group of scientists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are attempting to learn more about the Na'vi by conducting field studies and doing a bit of undercover science. They've created avatars of themselves to go about Pandora as a living, breathing Na'vi, while their human bodies lie dormant in a sort of tanning bed (they return to them when their avatars sleep).
The Na'vi are a 10-foot-tall species with translucent, aqua-colored skin, 3-fingered hands and smooth, lean torsos. They have long, neat dreadlocks for hair and wide, feline foreheads. The smart freckles on their brow faintly light up like tiny constellations.
With beady headdresses and skimpy sashes, the Na'vi are clearly meant to evoke Native Americans, as well as similarly exploited tribes of South America and Africa. They pray over a slayed animal and feel at one with nature. Their tails (oh, yes, they also have tails) even connect — like nature's USB port — to things like mystical willow branches, horse manes or the hair of pterodactyl-like birds.
It's no coincidence that the Na'vi chief Eyukan is played by the Cherokee actor Wes Studi, whose credits include "Dances with Wolves," perhaps the film most thematically akin to "Avatar."
"Avatar" is essentially a fairy tale that imagines a more favorable outcome for the oppressed fighting against the technology and might of Western Civilization. Sully, who quickly takes to life as a Na'vi, begins to feel his allegiances blurred.
Though he has promised Quaritch to spy on the Na'vi (their home lies atop an Unobtainium deposit), he begins to appreciate their ways. He also falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na'vi princess and the one who introduces him to the tribe.
Many Na'vi are suspicious of Sully — "a demon in a fake body" — but they eventually embrace him. They accept him as a leader, even though he occasionally goes limp and vacant when his human body isn't connected. This off-switch makes for questionable leadership skills — as if George Washington had been a narcoleptic.
The inevitable battle has overt shades of current wars. Quaritch, drinking coffee during a bombing with a cavalier callousness like Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now," drops phrases like "pre-emptive strike," "fight terror with terror" and even "shock and awe," a term apparently destined to survive for centuries in the lexicon.
These historical and contemporary overtones bring the otherworldly "Avatar" down to Earth and down to cliche. The message of environmentalism and of (literal) tree-hugging resonates, but such a plainly just cause also saps "Avatar" of drama and complexity.
It's also a funny message coming from such a swaggering behemoth of technology like "Avatar." As for the effects, they are undeniable. 3-D has recently become en vogue, but only now has it been used with such a depth of field.
The movie is also a notable advance for performance capture, which is how the Na'vi were created. As was done with Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" and King Kong in "King Kong," the Na'vi were made with cameras and sensors recording the movements of the actors and transposing them onto the CGI creatures.
Seldom has this been done in a way that captured the most important thing — the eyes — but Cameron employed a new technology (a camera rigged like a helmet on the actors) to capture their faces up close. The green, flickering eyes of the Na'vi are a big step forward, but there's still an unmistakable emptiness to a movie so filled with digital creations.
Ultimately, the technology of "Avatar" isn't the problem — moviemaking, itself, is an exercise in technology. But one need look no further than Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to see how technique — whether it be antique stop-motion animation or state-of-the-art 3-D performance capture — can find soulfulness at 24 frames per second.
"Avatar," a 20th Century Fox release, has intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. Running time: 161 minutes. Two and half stars out of four.