One word: Impressive.
More than one word: Well, when Avatar was being discussed over at MetaFilter last week, in advance of seeing the film, this is what I said:
Cameron has enough of a track record that even without seeing this film I pretty much know how it will be: Amazing visually and technically, with a story that ranges from barely passable to moderately intriguing, with the weaknesses of the story compensated for by a better than average cast of actors and very well integrated action sequences. That’s pretty much a given at this point.
And that’s how it was.
But I think it really bears mentioning just how visually impressive this film is. Two major points here:
1. This is the first time I’ve watched a 3D movie and didn’t get a headache, which is especially impressive when you realize the film is two hours, forty minutes long;
2. I spent almost no time at all thinking about the fact that most of my time was spent looking at computer animation. The Na’vi (I hope I got the apostrophe right, there) exist on the other side of the CGI uncanny valley; between the actors and their animators, these are real performances. Also, note to James Cameron: The extra time spent animating eyeballs paid off.
To be sure, in this regard Cameron benefited not only from the advance of technology but also from the fact that audiences are now trained to accept computer animated characters as actual characters, not just walking special effects; Cameron owes a debt to Peter Jackson in particular for that, since what he’s essentially done is take Gollum, stretched him out ten feet tall, turned him blue, and made a couple hundred of him. Be that as it may, Cameron’s own innovations here work marvelously.
As do his other visual innovations as well. Cameron’s legendary for being a tyrant with his crews, but at the very least it’s for a purpose, because he’s also absolutely committed to making sure you’re seeing something on screen you haven’t seen before. He’s pulled it off — there are things in Avatar you really have never seen on screen before. It’s a film I want to see a second time not for the story but just to walk the world and to pay attention to everything on screen that I didn’t have time to pay attention to the first time. I very strongly suspect I won’t be the only person doing that. Also, the action sequences are just fantastic; Cameron’s not lost a single step there.
To go back to the 3D thing one more time, the smart thing Cameron does that I wish other directors would figure out is that he doesn’t use the 3D to poke at you, he uses the 3D to let you look through a window into a world. He’s also pretty smart about not messing with your focal length any more than he has to, which is why my eyes don’t currently feel like they’ve been run over a cheese grater. Basically, Cameron’s graduated 3D from stunt work to being a viable cinematic grammar. He didn’t do it 100% perfectly (there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me), but he does it will enough that this film really should be seen as the textbook on how to do that process right.
I won’t get into the story except to say I found it serviceable, if predictable, and while I don’t really feel the same sort of moral outrage other people have about the “noble savage” stereotype as it applies to this film, it certainly does leave itself wide open for criticism along that line. But as you can tell from the pullout quote above, I go into Cameron films assuming I’ll need to compensate for storytelling anyway. That said, unlike, say, George Lucas, Cameron actually does attempt to tell a story and to give his actors something else to do except stand there. The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.
On a personal note, everyone who looked at the previews wondering if Avatar wasn’t in some way a little bit of a ripoff of Old Man’s War, I’ve noted before that any similarities are coincidence, but now having seen the movie I can say that no only are those similarities coincidence, they are fundamentally trivial coincidences at that. The stories and action really are nothing like each other. Which is of course perfectly fine with me, since should they ever make a movie with the OMW series, I wouldn’t want people to say it’s just an Avatar ripoff. They won’t.
Whether Avatar is the best science fiction film of the year depends I suppose on whether you like your SF films epic or intimate; if the latter, Moon is going to get your vote. But it’s visually the most impressive film of the year, period, and I can see every movie director with an SF property in their pocket going to the film and saying, “Oh, crap, now I have to compete with that.” It’s a challenge, like Star Wars was and like The Matrix was, for everyone else to step up their visual game. It’ll be interesting to see if they do.
Update: Spoilers are beginning to creep into the comment thread. You’ve been warned.