Avatar (2009)

(In theatres, December 2009) Expectations ran high for Avatar, James Cameron’s first fiction film since 1997’s blockbusting Oscar-winning Titanic.  Promises of revolutionary 3D technology and one of the biggest budgets of all times did nothing to calm down fans and foes.  Fortunately, the film lives up to most of the hype.  If it isn’t quite a revolution in the film business, it is still an unprecedented and astonishing piece of work on many levels.  First and most impressive would be the world-building shown in the film: up until now a pleasure left to written-SF fans, Cameron manages to produce a completely new environment in a film with no media tie-ins: Much of the stuff on-screen actually holds together at a glance, which is more than most other “Science Fiction” films manage to do.  The immersion into the world is helped along by innumerable small details that reinforce the tactile reality of the world, and by a fully mature use of 3D cinematography: Cameron simply moves his camera through 3D-space and tickles our sense of place rather than repeatedly poke us in the eyes.  The production design of the entire film is a source of wonder, and so is the confident way in which Cameron directs the action: After years of shaky-cam confusion, here’s a film that does it right, maintaining our sense of space while delivering the action and explosions.  Every single dollar spent on the film is on-screen, and the result is as good as blockbuster entertainment can aspire to be.  Visually, it’s irreproachable.  Which makes the relatively simplistic nature of the story a bit harder to tolerate: Gleefully adopting the overused “contemporary stand-in learns all about the noble savage” plot template, Avatar usually feels obvious and unsurprising –especially when the characters start talking.  (Where to start?  The human caricatures?  The new-age pablum spoken by the Na’Vi?  The way our hero become The Leader rather than An Advisor?)  It’s not an entirely bad script (structurally, it’s competent to a level that would leave less screenwriters crying) and it does manage to make the most of what it’s given as premise, but it is a tired and sometimes-exasperating plot template.  But story is less important here than spectacle, and so there’s more to see here than a single viewing can appreciate, which is just as well, because Avatar looks destined to do brisk business and earn a solid place in genre film history.  There’s a lot more to say about the film and how it works, but the conclusion seems unavoidable: Avatar is one of the best SF films of the decade, a remarkable visual achievement and a movie experience so comforting in its professionalism that it raises the bar for everyone else.

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