Only a select few movies and directors have changed cinema history – and only someone with the ambition of James Cameron would dare to join the list like this. Cameron could have rested on his laurels after the biggest hit of all time, but he spent 12 years on a more Titanic task. Once again, Cameron has a project with a gigantic budget, with questionable buzz, and with ambitions to redefine the movie epic – only this time, it’s in IMAX 3D. Cameron has waited decades to make a movie like Avatar, and movie audiences have waited longer for a film quite like this – so he hopes.
In the mid-2100’s, Earth is dying off fast, with corporations looking to other worlds for new resources. The most powerful of all is a substance called Unobtainum, on the distant forest world of Pandora. Only a race of blue spiritual creatures called the Na’Vi stand in the way of their mining plans. Though the company’s military contractors are preparing for war, scientists have created the “Avatar Program” for their subconscious to get downloaded into a Na’vi body, and make peace with the natives. But it is Jake Sully, a paralyzed ex-Marine, who gets to become a Na’vi and get deeper inside their clan than anyone. Yet the closer he gets to them – and to warrior princess Neytiri – the more he feels compelled to save them from extinction.
If movie goers have avoided the massive Avatar hype, it’s not due to a lack of effort from Cameron. For months, he’s bragged that this is the next leap forward in filmmaking, though bloggers weren’t so sure. Until last week’s first screenings, the dominant buzz was negative, with snickers over Cameron’s creatures, story and early trailers. But no one had seen it in IMAX 3D before then, and now they can see what Cameron was talking about.
In the first few minutes of Avatar, Cameron’s world just looks like the usual jungle paradise. One could start to wonder what all the fuss was about – until they actually step foot on Pandora. And thanks to IMAX 3D, it feels like we’re doing just that with them.
For the first time, the true potential of IMAX 3D has finally been mined, as Cameron hits upon what so many others haven’t. The technology doesn’t have to just make objects fly at the viewer – it can actually do what movies were created for in the first place, and take people into a new world. Cameron gives us a full on, up close and personal look at Pandora, as if Avatar was just another documentary.
Once a viewer is actually taken into Pandora, they can see what makes Avatar so different. We’ve all seen jungle landscapes, attacks from exotic animals, flying around, and destruction on a grand scale. But with Cameron’s IMAX 3D, we can experience it as if we were there, and therein lies a big difference. All the bone crunching action, visual beauty, and terror of war are as vivid as humanly possible, just as Cameron intended.
Cameron understands what the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich can never get – that it’s not enough to just throw up CGI at the screen. To get the full effect, we have to be swept away into the action and feel it, otherwise its just expensive noise. Avatar utilizes IMAX 3D to do that in truly game-changing fashions, like he promised. However, it does not signal the end of the game.
Ever since Avatar‘s plot and story was revealed, people have snickered and made “Dances With Smurfs” comparisons. Practically every review has bashed the story and dialogue in varying degrees, just like they did with Titanic. Unfortunately, Cameron may have actually taken a step back in those areas. Every several minutes, at least one clunker line or generic story element comes out, although Cameron holds it in check for long portions. Unfortunately, once the military comes in and starts their ethnic cleaning, the melodrama kicks in, and is only interrupted by a final battle to end all battles. But by then, a bit of fatigue finally sets in.
Cameron has shown how movies can still transport audiences, though Avatar doesn’t quite take them to a story beyond their dreams as well. Titanic had a lot of backlash and complaints, but it worked because we could believe in the central love story – anchored by two of the best actors we have today. But Avatar doesn’t have the epic emotional grandeur to go along with the visual one. As such, if the movie was not in IMAX 3D with Cameron’s special tools, it would have a much harder time making us forgive that.
Once the movie goes to DVD and leaves IMAX 3D theaters, one has to wonder whether it will hold up – and whether it will make the future backlash come harder. It took Titanic 12 years to go from mega hit to walking punch line, and once Avatar goes to the small screen, it may fall even faster.
Yet Cameron’s faults may not be so bad in the long run, if he really has changed cinema. When The Jazz Singer broke the talkie barrier, it too was bashed for its story and dialogue. But eventually, others came and refined the format, and took talkies beyond the limits of its pioneers. What Cameron has done is open the door for a new kind of movie making – and made it possible for others to do it better later.
Not everyone can get a revolutionary movie format right the first time – except for Pixar – and thanks to Cameron, someone else will inevitably iron out the kinks. Once that happens, we can properly thank Cameron for taking the first step.
Though CGI rules the day in Avatar, actors are still necessary. Cameron had DiCaprio and Winslet bail him out 12 years out, and though he may not have people of that caliber now, they help make his clunkers go down easier. Sam Worthington’s “next big thing” hype got off to a shaky start in Terminator Salvation, but it bounces back here. Though Worthington is saddled with deadly-dull narration, he shows a lot more life and ability once he gets into his Avatar. Zoe Saldana has to get through some truly eye-rolling lines as Neytiri, but shines through sheer force of will and emotion through all those blue pixels. Sigourney Weaver returns to Cameron’s world as a pioneering Avatar scientist, using her own brand of charisma to get through Cameron’s words. And as the deranged colonel, veteran character actor Stephen Lang provides a pumped-up, bad-ass lunacy that helps balance out the late melodrama.
James Cameron set out to change the future of film, and it looks like Avatar may do it. However, in any other format than IMAX 3D, the full effect of his world will be lost, and will make its flaws even more amplified. As an individual movie, Avatar may be destined for quick backlash and Titanic-esq mockery, once we can’t see it in IMAX 3D anymore. But as a way to fulfill the true potential of the movie experience, Avatar has thrown down a vivid gauntlet. Now it’s up to the Camerons of the future to take the next leap forward, and correct their master’s remaining flaws.