Friday, December 18, 2009

A Big Win For James Cameron


James Cameron has been all the rage with the ever-approaching release of his first movie since 12 years ago when he made "Titanic." With anticipation at its boiling point, judgment day for the self-proclaimed King of the World has finally arrived. The verdict? Well, let's just say he's keeping his crown for this one and perhaps expanding it to King of the Universe. Like many others, I was skeptical toward the director's venture that reportedly cost him $300 million. The building buzz for his new feature was holding up some lofty expectations that I was just worried wouldn't be met. It turns out, however, that every bold claim Cameron made about his latest film came true, and it was money well spent. So, here I am standing before you attempting to transform my skepticism into an undying love. I'm here to set the record straight: "Avatar" is the real deal. In astonishing and stunning IMAX 3D, this is a movie that transports in a way like nothing you've ever experienced before, and the unbelievable technical prowess involved is like nothing ever done before in cinema. Simply put, this is the most visually gorgeous film I have ever seen and a landmark in moviemaking.

The world of Pandora is such a rich, breathing, and fully-realized place it is comparable to other fantasy worlds represented in film such as "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings," and "Harry Potter." This world's environment is similar to Earth with luscious forests, sprawling landscapes, except all the more fantastical with places such as floating mountains with waterfalls dropping off into nothingness. The world is inhabited by creatures both colorful and dangerous and also the natives, the Na'vi. They are a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, slender, 8-foot-tall race. This world and these people are all rendered largely by CGI except it's like the next generation of CGI. The Na'vi are created through motion capture techniques that are entirely convincing, and they look like particular actors when they're supposed to without any creepy effect. Their blue skin glistens, the trees rustle and sway, the waters pound, and every aspect of Pandora--the eye-popping colors, textures, and meticulous attention to detail--is breathtakingly beautiful and an explosion of sensory delight.

But enough about the visual. How does the story hold up? It's simple, yes, but never too thin. And at the center is an emotional romance, one of elegance, grace, and real flesh and blood. Blue flesh, that is. The Na'vi thrive off their planet by being deeply connected with nature, but the nature of their planet is threatened by a mission lead by U.S. Armed Forces that want to harvest a rich mineral only found on Pandora and one that is worth millions. Armored, gun-wielding hover ships probe through the planet as they carry out their goal of displacing the native Na'vi. Diplomatic solutions are of first priority, but open-fire is a welcomed close second. To venture closely into Pandora outside the safety of machinery, they use avatars. These are linked to the minds of humans who remained wired on the ship, but they still have all the sensory connections to their avatar. They are them.

The hero is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic who has been sent on this mission to replace his brother who died. An avatar was built for his brother, and Jake is the only genetic match. As his avatar, Jake journeys into the wonders of Pandora and comes across a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She saves his life from some vicious banshees, and from there she reluctantly takes Jake under her wing and convinces her community to teach Jake the ways of Na'vi. The team back aboard the ships is thrilled because Jake can get them closer to a negotiation with the natives. Jake, however, with a fellow member who has a tender history with the Na'vi, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), begins to see things differently. The leader onboard the ship is the rough and aggressive Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who briefed Jake to be a good soldier, and now he feels betrayed.

The movie is 160 minutes long without ever a dull moment. Just consider the complexity of the battle taking place, the final warfare that ignites a revolution, the human drama, the Na'vi drama, the complexity with humans and Na'vi combined, the internal secrets that Pandora harbors such as those white, glowing, floating creatures that are the soul of the planet, and, hell, it just all makes for grand, epic, sweeping entertainment at the highest caliber that needs to be seen more than once to fully admire and absorb. The first time you're simply taken aback by the shock of it all. There are an endless number of captivating scenes. One that especially comes to mind is when Jake has to capture and tame a flying dragon-looking creature. The Na'vi literally become one with the great beasts they have at their disposal for transportation.

Expectations tend to be a double-edged sword. Fail them, and you're doomed. Meet them, however, and you soar. Thankfully for James Cameron, he is soaring above and beyond all expectations and doubts that preceded this release. And the box office results will be there to match it. "Avatar" is anti-war and pro-Green. It is not only a film but a cultural phenomenon, an event that cannot be missed. If you do, you're out of the loop. I don't care if it's Hollywood and profitable and a shoo-in for being the big-budget crowd-pleaser for which the Academy may have been searching. It doesn't matter. "Avatar" will blow your mind. Go see it.

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