E: Now that, my friends, is why people go to movie theaters.
You might have heard a lot about how this movie is all effects, or how the storyline is completely unoriginal.
There are many factors in creating a thrilling movie experience, though. Titanic doesn’t have a particularly original plot. And neither does Star Wars, or Braveheart.
I’d suggest, instead, that the storyline is classic.
Those averse to mild spoilers or plot discussion – don’t read past the jump. Just go see the movie.
How original does a well told tale have to be? Certainly the trappings are new; crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully is drafted to take his dead scientist twin’s place as an ‘avatar driver’; he pilots the body of a ten foot alien indigenous to a world where a well armed corporation mines a mineral hilariously named unobtainium. Sully works both for the scientists researching Pandora’s flora, fauna and culture, and the local military commander in need of a different sort of intel. Through a series of accidents Sully ends up part of the Navi, tutored by the fierce warrior princess Neytiri. In the end, he must choose sides between the company and the People. So sure, we’ve seen a soldier/explorer seduced by the ‘noble savages’ before. What’s truly new, after all? Shakespeare was asking for new plots hundreds of years ago. I can tell you one thing that’s new; the 3D techniques used in this movie. This is 3D like you’ve never seen it, 3D like you’ve only dreamed it could be. This is you, living inside the screen. When you read that the movie is all about spectacle, that won’t do it justice. What’s truly amazing, I think, is that the effects are completely integrated into the film. They aren’t so much noteworthy for their own sake as they bring you deeply, entirely into the lush, terrifying, fascinating world of Pandora. The audience is seduced into the culture of the Navi just as our hero Jake Sully is. The technology serves even the smallest, most humdrum pieces of story, however, and not just the flying mountains or armored robots or giant indigenous everything. I wish the people who made The Hulk had this team’s grasp of perspective. Honestly, one moment I found incredibly impressive was a speech given in a briefing room; you felt like you were in the room full of sweaty, hardened soldiers. To my great shock, none of it made me motion sick, something that happens to me fairly often in the theater. Nothing interfered with this fully immersive experience.
And what really matters, after all, is whether they’ve done what they’ve done well. You’ve only to remember disasters like Pearl Harbor and Troy to realize it’s not easy to do justice to a classic story, even when you throw a lot of money and effects at it. And Avatar does have a story, unlike mindless tech-driven monstrosities like Transformers. More than anything, Avatar makes you want to be Navi. I want to learn how to pad silently on huge, mossy branches. I want to commune with horses and trees. I want to learn how to ride one of their dragons. When Sully – during his first such ride – proclaims “I was born to do this,” you’re right there with him for the tremendous thrill.
The movie isn’t without its problems. For one thing, it didn’t make me cry, and it should have. I got misty-eyed exactly once, and that was at a deliberate physical reference to 9/11. And you know me; if you can’t make me cry, you have a serious problem. I was at first tempted to say the animation was stopping me from connecting fully with the characters, but honestly, I cried during Dumbo and Tarzan and Toy Story 2, so that can’t be it. The movie could have done with a little more attention paid to its secondary characters, which would have made their deaths more impactful. And for the most expensive movie ever made, you’d think they could have spent a little more on a vocal coach for Sam Worthington. He narrates the film and so there’s no hiding the points where he slips in and out of Sully’s accent. Or heck, they could have just let his character be Australian. Avatar is a genuine world-wide phenomenon, so I’m not sure what the need to pretend he was American was. And yes, I could predict most of the big moments, though not all, and certainly how it would all end.
I love movies that surprise me, like Memento, or that take me deep into a specific, individual story, like Frozen River. I like a good adventure, too, and I like anthropological detail. I love the feeling of being somewhere new. Avatar gave me that feeling, and gave me that adventure, with conviction I’ve never felt before. If Avatar had all of those other aspects, it would have been perfect. Does it need to be? My answer is no. It’s fantastically, splendidly, inspiringly good for what it is. Spend the extra cash to see this one in the theaters, and even if it costs more, see it in 3D. You will be glad you did.