In 1993, Steven Spielberg revolutionized visual effects by giving us all-CG (computer generated) characters with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. In 1995, Pixar took animation to the next level with the first all-CG animated feature film with Toy Story. In 1999, The Wachowski Brothers changed the action film-making with slow-motion, spinning cameras, and the bullet time effect with The Matrix. Now, James Cameron has come along and raised the bar on 3D and motion capture with Avatar. With this film, Cameron proves that the state of computer technology has finally reached a point where a filmmaker can create a whole world that is realistic and totally convincing. Never once did I question the authenticity of what I was seeing on screen. Notwithstanding the technology behind it, did I mention what a great film Avatar is?

Since dominating the world with Titanic in 1997, Cameron has pretty much relegated himself to the deep oceans, which became an obsessive hobby for him through the making of Titanic. A few years ago, he finally decided to return to the director’s chair with his first feature film in 12 years. Avatar is the result of nearly 5 years of hard work, all of which you see on the screen. This film also has special significance for me because a good friend of mine, Yuri Bartoli, contributed significantly to the design of the film and it looks absolutely fantastic.

The plot for Avatar has been compared by some to Dances With Wolves, which I think oversimplifies it. To say that it is merely a futuristic rip-off of Kevin Costner’s film does Avatar a huge disservice. The story of colonization and oppression by one race or ethnicity against another has been told countless times in books and films (see The New World, Little Big Man, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, etc.). What makes Avatar unique is how well it takes the elements common in these stories and puts them together. James Cameron is first and foremost a storyteller and always has been (unlike George Lucas or Robert Zemeckis, who sacrifice story for impressing the audience with visual effects). Here, Cameron tells what may perhaps be the tightest and best paced story he has yet told. Put simply, the story is about a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is assigned to Pandora, a planet containing rich and valuable resources. Sully is sent on a mission to integrate himself within the native race on the planet, the Na’vi to find out more about the resources and to convince them to give up these resources to the humans. To do this, an avatar is created for him, which is basically a Na’vi version of him. Sully embarks on his mission, but during the course of his stay with the Na’vi, he questions his allegiances and begins to realize the humans are the oppressors.

I saw Sam Worthington for the first time earlier this year in the shitfest, Terminator: Salvation. Although the film was pretty horrible, Worthington gave a good performance and managed to make it tolerable to sit through all of it. He has turned into an up-and-coming movie star with Terminator, Avatar, and the upcoming Clash of the Titans and I can see why after watching this film. Sully could have been written as a typical meathead who meets violence with violence as we’ve seen in the Rambo movies. However, instead we get someone who possesses intellect, charm, and a dry sense of humor that works effectively here. Add to this that Sully is a paraplegic, which already makes him an outsider to most of the humans and as a result, you empathize with him.

However, the real standout performance in Avatar for me was Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the Na’vi woman who befriends Sully. Her acting coupled with the motion capture effect created a truly remarkable character who easily made me care for the Na’vi’s plight and particularly care for her welfare. This was an outstanding character and I can only hope that the Academy will do the unlikely honor of nominating her for an award.

The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. Sigourney Weaver plays a tough research scientist (from Stanford unfortunately, which was my only gripe about the film). Giovanni Ribisi is the asshole corporate stooge who just wants the valuable resources (he’s the Paul Reiser character from Aliens). Michelle Rodriguez is the Marine pilot (she’s the Vasquez character from Aliens). Finally, Stephen Lang plays the hardass Marine Colonel, a character who truly inspires fear and intimidation. He is a force to be reckoned with and the climax involving him is one of the best action sequences I have seen in a long time.

For those of you who have not seen Avatar and plan on seeing it, please make sure you see it in 3D. Unlike every single film that has been released this past year that has been shown in 3D, Avatar actually takes full advantage of the technology and uses it effectively. The 3D here is not gimmicky and its used to show you the depth and beauty of the alien planet. Unlike past films, I actually felt myself fully immersed in the world through the technology and this is exactly what 3D is meant to do.

A lot has been written about the motion capture effect in Avatar. Robert Zemeckis is perhaps best known for the use of the technology in Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. I have not seen any of these films mostly because none have impressed me with their subject matter to get me to see them. However, I have seen enough of the motion capture to notice that the characters always lack that extra something that makes them look and feel alive. As a result, you don’t feel for the characters in any way and they come off as dead and creepy looking. Happily, Avatar resolves this issue. Not since Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy have I invested myself in these characters (the Na’vi). You believe they are alive and consequently, you give a shit about their situation.

As you can all clearly tell, I loved Avatar. Few filmmakers today are capable of giving audiences an epic feel to their movies. Many have tried and other than Cameron’s Avatar, only Peter Jackson has been able to pull this off with Lord of the Rings. I believe giving a film a sense of epicness is one of the most difficult things a writer and director can achieve. It requires a perfect balance and an obsessive attention to detail of all the narrative elements to pull this off. Cameron has pulled it off here. Go see this movie and see what a master filmmaker who is at the top of his game can give you for $10. You will not be disappointed.

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