Our very own resident film critic, Chris Cabin, of AMC's Filmcritic.com, gives his take on a whole planet full of Blue Man Group. As always, his opinions are his own and not necessarily reflective of the KCB, but I know I'll probably think this movie is gonna score a win in my book.
In his new film Avatar, James Cameron sets upon doing something monumental and, one would think, overwhelmingly tedious: Creating a new world. Which is to say where so many "massive" filmmakers have developed alternate realities or adapted the strange wilderness of lands found in literature, Cameron has both envisioned an entirely original ecosystem of flora and fauna, and given new emphasis to what it means to its inhabitants. Trees grow incandescent lines of communication to the dead and may house entire civilizations if let be. Appendages connect and bind through small hairs, allowing all manner of animal -- whether web-winged or heavy of hoof -- to download the moral and spiritual compass of one another. Everything is connected and everything burns radiant, even in the daytime.
Gestating in the day-glo terrarium of Cameron's frontal lobe for something like fifteen years, Avatar is the most enveloping and (no two ways about it) beautiful spectacle to find home at the multiplex since Peter Jackson's stroll to Mordor, and clocks in, thankfully, in only a third of the runtime. And like the warring tribes at its center, it is a film of two worlds with its seamless, brilliantly colorful mix of digital animation and live-action colliding, clashing and finally flowing with the power and thrill of a raging river. Giving newfound cred to the motion-capture technique so absurdly misspent trying to make human beings look just slightly less human in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, Cameron's alien western likewise lends defense to that other over-used marketing tool: 3D not only gives the imagery lift but highlights the depth of Cameron's worlds, evident from an opening shot of soldiers, scientists and missionaries floating upwards out of rows of sleep cells.
Set-up as a last-ditch replacement for his twin brother, Jake (Sam Worthington of Terminator: Salvation) pauses to glimpse at two floating pebbles of water before he is ejected into the same weightless space. His destination is Pandora, Cameron's ostensibly peaceful planet ruled by the Na'vi, a species of 10-foot-tall blue-monkey cat-people who ride reptilian horses with ant-eater noses. Crippled while serving in the Marines, Pandora offers Jake a working body in the form of one of the blue-monkey cat-people -- an avatar. His payment is the surgery to reconstruct his own dilapidated form. Jake works under a chain-smoking, green-as-can-be scientist (Sigourney Weaver) and chums it up with an eco-dweeb (Joel Moore) and later reports his findings to tough-as-coffin-nails Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang of The Men Who Stare at Goats) and a Fortune-500 architect of doom (Giovanni Ribisi, one-upping Paul Reiser's greedy brat from Aliens).
Saved by warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the conflicted marine now finds himself a prophet-in-training to the warrior princess's father (Wes Studi) and her psychic earth-mother (CCH Pounder) and in rivalry with her betrothed (Laz Alonso). Streaming intel back to the Colonel, Jake is too busy learning to ride oversized neon-orange pterodactyls and tenderly mating with Neyteri -- the film's cheesiest moment -- to realize that the military and the corporate goons are planning to decimate Pandora in the hopes of mining it for a valuable mineral known as Unobtainium. Climactic war is waged with Jake and his pack of eco-friends backing the Na'vi and the brutish troops sporting their own types of avatars -- heavily-armed supped-up robo-bodies upgraded from Ripley's alien-fighting cargo-mover.
Replete with soggy allegories to every racial conflict in human history, though Native Americans are given the most blatant treatment, Avatar is essentially a film about the progress of film technology in a similar way that Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds confronted how we see the past through film. Cameron has conceptualized the act of motion-capture on-screen and given it immense visual muscle, making the Na'vi tribes not only the trippiest civil-rights advocates of the decade but the first convincing case of visual effects as a sincere conductor of human emotion not to involve the name Pixar. The humans are portrayed, primarily, as unreasonable creatures driven only by a selfish agenda and who see the Na'vi as nothing but a paltry nuisance; an opinion similar if not identical to cinematic purists who dismiss the advancement of technology as a threat to "real" filmmaking.
Of course, Avatar borrows heavily from cinema's past through a bevy of American westerns and, just maybe, the nature-themed animation of Hayao Miyazaki; the story is most obviously contrived from Kevin Costner's ludicrous Dances with Wolves. But even as Cameron uses these genre stereotypes and benchmarks to root viewers among the ruby-red mushrooms and dragon hounds, the director uses Avatar to cannibalize his own oeuvre: Elements from Titanic, The Abyss, True Lies and, most prominently, Aliens are redeployed under the canopy of his new technological frontier. It would be easy to cast off Avatar as a leftist parable aimed towards reckless red-staters but sweet love for mother earth is far from Papa Cameron's endgame. Assured and confident in his status as the preeminent living director of the motion-picture spectacle, Cameron's latest offers an olive branch between those who think that cinema is dead and those who think it's just rediscovering its own form.