Remember when James Cameron was cool? Before he came out with that 3-hour long cheese fest about a boat and a grandma and a hundred year-old pendant? Remember him when he was doing movies with ground breaking special effects that were pushing the envelope of what film could do? Remember when he was creating characters that stuck with you? Like that robot from the future out to kill the mother of the savior of our race? Or that time he made this movie about this band of soldiers stuck on an alien planet with a horde of big toothy motherfuckers looking to eat their brains? Or that time he set one of his stories at the bottom of the ocean and broke open the CGI industry.
You probably don't. You're too young.
Suffice to say, there was a James Cameron before Titanic. Pre "I'm the King of the World!" Cameron. A Cameron who was known for creating entertaining action flicks that didn't stick in your craw and make you want to brain old ladies and push scruffy hero characters overboard into freezing waters. That Cameron knew how to pace a movie so there was never a dull moment. He knew how give audiences a character you could root for. He knew how to give us characters you could despise.
With "James Cameron's Avatar" (this is, I suppose, a way to distinguish it from Avatar: The Last Airbender, which by the way, is something else you should definitely check out), Jimmy is back in top form. Good vs. Evil plot? check. Flawed human characters mucking things up? check. Heroically Heroey Hero man who needs to step up and take the role he was destined for? check. Strong, Female leads that aren't your standard damsel in distress and who kick more ass than any of the men? check. Even his mastery over CGI is back; I bet George Lucas wishes he had half this talent.
Since this review is pretty late, you've probably already heard all about the movie and decided that it's going to rock. I'm going to write it up anyway since I too, have decided that it rocks. This in no way invalidates my earlier position on Plurk that CGI and MTV have ruined Hollywood. That still stands. Michael Bay and McG and the other music video directors turned feature filmmakers who think that pretty girls, big explosions, shiny cars, and big robots are all that people want still suck. These guys don't care about character and plot. That is why stuff like Transformers and Terminator: Salvation leaves you're brain so quickly. It wasn't really engaged in the first place. The triumph of spectacle indeed.
Cameron on the other hand understands that when smart people go see a movie, we want to see people we relate to. We don't really care if the dialogue is cheesy ("I see you" is the new "You complete me") or that the aliens look kinda funny (they're aliens, duh). By the middle of the movie, you've forgotten all that. And that's where Cameron succeeds. By the end of the first reel, you're already involved in Jake Sully's story and you forget the weird cat faces and odd, too crisp movement of the CG characters. After the opening sequence I even forgot the movie was in 3D; I was so immersed in the story that I didn't pay attention to what was live action and what was faked.
Are there problems with the script? Sure there are. There aren't many memorable lines here. No "I see dead people." or "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen." or even an "I'll be back." Sure the aforementioned Na'vi greeting is probably being used by every couple out there now, but It's not a "Go ahead. Make my day."
This is a very simple plot. It's the good guys agains the bad, underdog against Simon Bar Sinister. None of those convoluted twists that younger directors feel the need to insert into everything. It's not an art film trying to do something "original" or "edgy". You know what's going to happen 30 minutes into the movie and I ask you, is that such a bad thing?
Humans aren't all that complicated to begin with. We hear the same stories all the time, we all have similar mythologies. Ever wonder why? Because we are cheesy. We like the cheese. Bring it on. Remember True Lies when Arnold went over all jealous over a car salesman? We loved that. What about when we all thought Bud was a goner at the end of Abyss? I got choked up. The switches that drive most of us aren't all that hard to find,and Cameron seems to have a manual. Even Titanic, chick flick that it was, was a whole Universe beyond Twilight. So what about Avatar? Does it break new ground? Probably not. There's nothing we haven't seen before. But in the end, does that matter?
Story is still king, and Cameron knows it. He knows how to frame action and use his CG to support the plot, not set pieces. Like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, he doesn't rely on the CGI to pull the movie out, but rather uses it to enhance scenes, to make us this alien world that is both terrifying and beautiful. If Science Fiction is the literature of wonder, then Cameron must be a fan. Every frame of Pandora ups the wow. It brings me back to the times when I was a kid and wondered if there really were living zepplins floating in the clouds of Jupiter.
I'm sure once I see the film again, I'll find little things wrong with it. Small things that I didn't see before. I'm sure after several viewings I might eventually get bored of it. I fell asleep during my 3rd viewing of Dark Knight. Right now though, I can't wait to see Sully experience Pandora again, running through the bioluminescent jungle, jumping through 1000 year old trees, and flying through floating mountains. I hope his follow up will be just as satisfying.
Now if only someone would make an articulated Powersuit that will hold 6 inch figures...