George Lucas, are you listening?
Experiencing "Avatar" on the big screen in all of its grandeur was the experience I kept waiting for with the Star Wars prequels. I saw "Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" over 8 times in the theater, and the second and third films underwhelmed and disappointed me. They are not movies I want to watch again and again. It was crushing to see George Lucas take my childhood as well as worlds of wonder/beauty (Hoth, Cloud City, Tatooine, Endor), and crush the spirit out of it.
Where those Star Wars movies were disappointing, cloying, and ultimately a failure in terms of integrating mind-blowing effects and telling a politically relevant story, "Avatar" exceeds all expectations, brilliantly sets up a compelling frame to the story (much like Cameron did in "Titanic"), integrates the amazing special effects in a close to seamless way, as well as making a powerful statement about the War on Terror/War on Iraq.
Who would have thought that James Cameron would have made a $250,000,000 film that addresses militarism, our response to the other, winning "the hearts and minds," as well as what we ruin in our quest for the MacGuffin of "unobtanium" (insert gold, oil, metals, etc...)
Cameron confidently spirits his camera through swooping tracking shots in the jungle-Endor-like planet of Pandora, focusing lovingly on beautiful, amazing, glow-in-the-dark creatures, terrifying animals, and the inventive, fresh Na'avi tribe who live in harmony with nature, not in opposition to it.
There were moments in this film that made me want to cheer. It appealed to me on a very childish level, as well as an adult level. As a child, I cheered when the battle scenes combined everything I loved in "Return of the Jedi's" X-wing attack sequences on the Death Star at the end of the trilogy with the brutally violent effects of "Starship Trooper's" best alien attack moments. As an adult, I cheered when Sigourney Weaver shows up and has a compelling role as an eco-warrior, fighting for understanding the Na'avi, not obliterating them. I cheered for the complexity of the Matrix-like pods the characters used to link-in to their avatars, as well as the way characters were treated like adults. I cheered when Cameron allowed his camera to linger on incredible, unique creatures and landscapes, not just whizzing past them, like Lucas on his way to telling his story. Cameron is not afraid to spend time to play in this world. The play is what defines this film as much as the action.
I liked the way Cameron referenced his previous works--hearing elements of the "Aliens" pounding score, the vague references to "The Company" who I believe sent Ellen Ripley back to bring back an alien, the ship crashing like the boat in "Titanic," and having a protagonist hang off of a missile ala "True Lies"--in tiny, revealing ways, as well I liked Cameron's belief that we the audience can draw our own conclusions about what to make of the plot, (i.e. What is the statement being made about America and its incursions into other parts of the world? ) though a few of the "we fight terror with terror" lines were more explicitly drawn than I needed them to be.
The score is moving; the Na'avi creatures are wonderful to look at. The riding scenes are some of my favorites, as well as scenes where characters balance precariously on logs, hopping through this incredible, eye-popping world. The visuals of this film are so colorful in surprising ways, and I love how Cameron hides things in the background and shows the intricacy of this world through a delicate, floating jellyfish style dandelion seed pod that floats through certain scenes.
In conclusion, Cameron's eye for visual effects and for crafting a story that uses those effects in a compelling way worked in a way I haven't seen in a film in a long, long time, maybe since "Titanic" and "Return of the Jedi." If I was a ten-year old kid, this movie would have completely blown my mind. As a 32-year old kid, this movie filled me with wonder and amazement.
Well-done, Jim Cameron. You truly are the King of the World. Take as much time as you need to for your next film. I