The best movie of the year, by a long shot, and probably the best sci-fi movie I have ever seen (if I think of a better one, I’ll let you know). The plot is predictable, and you can figure out how the movie is going to end within 15 minutes (the ship sinks). But that knowledge of the likely ending doesn’t impair your enjoyment of the journey. The Kumbaya politics are simplistic — the right wing blogosphere is probably already littered with exploded crania — but the point of view at least coherent, and consistent. Best to think of it as a particularly well-executed fairy tale, which, like LOTR, you can enjoy regardless of political leanings.
As a feat of visual imagination and sheer moviemaking, Avatar is unmatched — as far beyond the Star Wars trilogies as Lucas’ films were ahead of everyone else’s in their day. The Navi society — part pre-Columbian North America, part sub-Saharan Africa, part Pern — is a remarkable construct. Some of the most astonishing scenes in the movie involve running, falling or flying — breathtaking even in flat screen. The colors are spectacularly beautiful, and the visual variety of the plants and animals depicted simply stunning. Odd and strange as this world is, though, it is firmly grounded in human experience. Like the creatures in the original Star Wars films, the flora and fauna here are based on things that exist in the world we know, albeit — like the jellyfish fairies — in unusual forms.
Motion capture technology has also advanced. The actors no longer have to tape alone in front of a green screen, but can, with the magic of special VR headsets, see a mockup of how their actions, and those of the other actors, as they will appear on the screen. And Cameron was smart enough to give the individual Navi the characteristics of the actors portraying them, to help us emotionally connect with them. We recognize, in the Navi’s motions, the eyes and mouths of their human counterparts have, so we also accept the pointy ears and tails that they don’t.
Most of the actors were unknown to me, although Zoe Saldana, the female lead, was Uhura in the recent Star Trek film. (Think she’s going to be sent every genre script for the next 20 years?) Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the hard-edged, heart of gold leader of the scientific team — “where’s my cigarette” — was a real gift.
Cameron’s true magic is the way he immediately draws you into the world of the movie. I don’t know how he does it (it was true of Titanic too). But in the Friday afternoon performace we saw, which was packed with children of all ages, there was none of the back talk and commenting that mars so many trips to the movie theater these days. Not a single cellphone went off during the show — probably the best sign of the success of this movie as a piece of cinematic art.
Run, don’t walk.