So, after aeons of speculation, Avatar is finally out. Can James Cameron catch lightning in a bottle once more, or is this going to be his Titanic (the boat, not the movie. He already made that one). I just got back from a screening and my answer is… a little of both.
Let’s start with the positives, of which there are plenty – Avatar is an incredible visual feast. See this baby on the biggest damn 3D screen you have access to and there’s no doubt that you’ll get sucked into the incredible world of Pandora that Cameron and his CGI artisans have created. The environment is rife with detail, from the blue-skinned Na’Vi to the myriad flora and fauna that populate every frame. Avatar represents the step forward that movies like Beowulf promised, and the effects shots justify the movie’s incredible $500 million pricetag. Cameron wisely doesn’t let the action stop to give the audience time to ponder what’s happening, rushing us from scene to scene so quickly that the two hours and twenty minutes are over before you know it.
Which is good, because although Avatar is quite a ride and probably the best big-budget action movie of 2009, it does have some flaws. To be quite frank, the enviro-populist message of the flick (Hey! Leave the nature alone!) is kind of embarrassing – the humans are cast as rapacious villains while the Na’Vi are just trying to hew to their traditions. You almost expect to see an aged blue-skinned man standing by the side of a road with a single tear dripping down his craggy, weathered face. But by the time the last half hour rolls around, it’s nothing but balls-out action that will leave you clutching your armrests and nervously crinkling your Twizzlers – it’s bravura action directing that Michael Bay wishes he could do half as well.
Is Avatar a reinvention of cinema? Probably not – how many other directors could get away with a half-billion dollar budget? But it is a transcendent action film that shows that, in gifted hands, CGI can be a blessing and not a curse. Highly recommended.