After nearly 15 years of waiting, Avatar has finally hit the screen. Was it worth it?
Mostly, yes. If you look at it from the point of view that the film has been in development for that long, it may tarnish the accomplishments of Cameron and company a bit, but taken out of context, Avatar is an impressive achievement.
For the first time, I was sucked into another world. The effect was so convincing that I never doubted Pandora existed. I saw the Comic-Con footage, and wasn't that impressed, but that was probably because I was only seeing snippets of the film on a sub-standard screen that wasn't designed for optimal 3-D viewing. in IMAX 3-D, the effects are perhaps the most convincing committed to film thus far.
While the Na'vi characters are still clearly CGI, they move and express emotion so well that you forget you're watching something that is entirely fabricated through circuitry. Zoe Saldana puts forth an excellent performance as Neytiri, the main love interest, and that transitions well to the animated character. Without the technical mastery Cameron and WETA have put forth here, Neytiri's emotions would not sell nearly as well.
The monsters of Pandora, from the dogs to the horses to the rhino-like beasts and the flying lizards, all are executed with such realistic detail and believable articulation that you completely accept that they're real. It's like watching Jurassic Park for the first time all over again.
The lush environment of Pandora is also completely exotic, yet presented with such detail and clarity that you'd swear it was an actual location. And the way that environment is blended with the "real" filmed bits is absolutely seamless. Human interaction with the CGI characters and world is perhaps the most flawless example yet.
So, with all the eye candy good to go, what about the human element? Well, that's where the film becomes less impressive. While Sam Worthington is strong as the film's lead, Jake Sully, the rest of the characters leave a little to be desired.
Sigourney Weaver is the most developed character outside of Jake and Neytiri, as Dr. Grace Augustine. She's crass and irreverent, but at the same time, compassionate and understanding, reminiscent of her previous collaboration with Cameron as Lt. Ripley in Aliens. She starts out bitchy and ends up one of the film's champions. But there's something missing. Her performance veers into stereotype too often, and in the end, we don't really care what happens to her. It's a little disconcerting, but in line with Cameron's direction in the past. There are wonderful characters in there that just don't completely sell.
Stephen Lang's Colonel Quaritch fares equally as well, but there's not mistaking that he's a war-hungry military man from start to finish. Lang puts forth a lot of effort here, and makes being a badass Marine leader seem all too easy. Quaritch goes from seeming like a heroic man of valor to an uncompromising villain by the film's end, but it never seems out of place, thanks to Lang's adept handling of the character. Although Quaritch is always riding the line of being the stereotypical military baddie, in lesser hands, the result could have been an over-simplified disaster.
The rest of the supporting characters are all quite generic. Joel Moore's jealousy towards Sam Worthington's character seems to spring up out of nowhere, just because the story needed it to. Michelle Rodriguez' decision to join the Na'vi against the humans is equally as inexplicable, and Giovanni Ribisi turns in an entertaining, but obvious impersonation of Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold as the money-hungry corporate man.
But the writing is perhaps the weakest link. There are a few groan-worthy bits of dialogue in there that even the most skilled actor would have trouble delivering in a realistic manner. It's funny that so much time and energy was spent developing the Na'vi language, yet the English portions of the film leave so much to be desired. I'm not asking for Shakespeare, and seeing how this is a big-budget blockbuster, I can forgive this bit. I just suppose I expected a little more from Cameron, especially after having to wait 15 years for this one. Still, these are small potatoes when looking at the bigger picture.
There's also some heavy-handed moral messages about the environment and some obvious allusions to 9/11, but Cameron does manage to tie it all together in such a pretty bow that I'm not that bothered by any of it and the "human" story really shines through.
Now, here's the question: will Avatar beat Titanic? For box office receipts, maybe. The film cost an astronomical amount (reportedly over 300 million), but it's also a movie that people have been foaming at the mouth to see, and it should generate a large revenue. It's also a good movie, and is sure to benefit from positive word of mouth, if not only from the 3-D spectacle it presents, so the audiences will come. Avatar may have trouble toppling The Dark Knight, as it doesn't have a respected dead actor to play Taps for, nor does it have legions of obsessed tweens like the Twilight films. But if the reaction at Comic-Con and the theater I was in tonight are any indication, chances are it'll be alright.
Where Avatar may pale in comparison to Titanic is in Oscar nominations and wins. Special Effects is probably a no-brainer, as is Direction, if only for technical achievement, but I doubt Avatar will be winning Best Picture. But hell, if Crash and Gladiator could win, I suppose it's not outside the realm of possibility, and we might actually see a nomination.
Either way, Avatar is definitely worth the wait, even though it's got some flaws. I'll probably see it again, if anything to just absorb the experience of going to Pandora.