Coming out of the theater after watching Avatar, I found nothing to complain about. It is not just Cameron’s mastery over technology that makes Avatar great; it is his ability to use technology as a vehicle for great storytelling. Avatar could not have been told without the technology employed and the technology could not have found a better story to makes its debut. Here is why:
If you watched the trailers, you already know the premise (and most of the plot). It is the year 2154 and Earth’s mineral resources have been depleted. Luckily we’ve found a moon, we’ve named Pandora, in a nearby star that is rich in life and mineral resources. It also hosts a native sentient species, the Na’vi (which look like giant blue elves with a tail). It is not long before an Earth based company goes venturing into Pandora to exploit its richness. The company hires ex-marines with heavy-duty equipment both as protection, against the hostile fauna, and heavy-muscle to do the mining. A group of scientists led by Sigourney Weaver tag along in order to explore Pandora’s ecosystems. However Pandora has a rather hostile environment for humans; it atmosphere not breathable for humans and due to its low gravity all living creatures tower way above anything on Earth. Thus the scientists employ Avatars to go out and explore. The Avatars are test-tube grown Na’vi/human hybrids that are mind controlled by humans wired up to a computer. While operating an Avatar the human controller feels like a Na’vi and shares their physical suitability for the environment.
What the team finds in their expedition is quite an eye-opener and we get to tag along for the hike. Pandora is beautiful and you drool in awe of it sights. Cameron has successfully made Earth boring. We don’t have the breathtaking floating Halleluiah Mountains (it is the element that makes them float the company is after) nor the splendid kelutrel tree in which the Na’vi make their home. Pandora’s wildlife is just as impressive as its landscapes; amongst my favorite creatures were a herd of giant hammer-headed rhinos, a helicopter like bug and the banshees, (the Na’vi’s flying mounts). All of this is achieved thanks to Cameron’s technology and storytelling. Had Pandora just been a product of a technological breakthrough it would look and look like a Star Wars planet (made up of a single ecosystem) and feel like a SciFi channel TV series planet (fake and filmed in an LA back-lot). The storytelling in Avatar gives us the idea that Pandora is as large and diverse as Earth, if not even more so. We see parts of it in a montage where several the Na’vi tribes are gathered; Pandora has mountains, plains, rivers, oceans, jungles, etc. By the end we are left with the desire to explore the parts we were not shown and experience the once we were shown; I want to ride a banshee though the Hallelujah Mts. None of this could be achieved without masterfully mixing technology and storytelling. Something most high-tech loaded films fail to do so.
Perhaps the movie’s weakest point lays in the one dimensionality of its characters. Besides Jake Sully, the hero (Sam Worthington), and Neytiri, the Na’vi love interest (Zoe Saldana), everyone is rather one-dimensional. This applies particularly to the main antagonist. But Cameron solves this in a rather interesting way: there is not one main antagonist but two, while one might be capable of great crimes the other is not, similarly there is more than one “good science pal”; as individuals they are flat characters but their interactions as a set of characters makes them quite dynamic (the sole exception being Michelle Rodriguez, who as always, is just there to kick ass). But Avatar is not about one character’s journey it is about a shared experience (quite literally actually). The simple characters also speak in an equally simple language. This is actually a bit of a blessing; the dialogue is so straightforward that I was able to grasp most of what was communicated in Na’vi without reading the subtitles (I watched the film in the Czech Rep. so I had no English subtitles available). Elaborate dialogue would have been out of place as most characters are army grunts or as Jake describes it “members of the Jarhead clan”.
The acting is basic but suitable for the film; anything more would appear as over acting. But alongside the acting we have the skills of tens of animators working on the digitally created Na’vi and Pandora. The emotions expressed by the Na’vi are real. Animated characters usually depend on accompanying music or exaggerated expression to fully encompass emotion. Not this time. The Na’vi feel as real as the humans they share Pandora with. Notice how I said feel, not look. I am not sure that a 12-foot giant blue elf with a tail will ever look real, nor a giant flying animal with a 30 ft. wingspan. But Avatar gets so close that it feels real. And the actors are just good enough that they help us imagine it is real.
It is clear that Avatar will develop into a franchise and it has all the elements needed to become as successful as The Lord of the Rings and/or Star Wars. But with a major difference; unlike any predecessor, Avatar was planned and launched with the intention to become a franchise. The Lord of the Rings was franchised in a process that took almost 60 year,s and George Lucas was the first to pioneer the synergetic business possibilities of film one Star Wars first came out in '77. Now Cameron might have achieved the impossible; he has elevated the creation of a franchise from a business practice into an art form. Like LOTR, Avatar was planned with the creation of a whole universe: a world with its own ecosystems, races, cultures, languages, etc. But unlike Tolkein, Cameron is fully aware of the possibility of expanding the universe beyond its original book or film form. A book about the flora and fauna of Pandora has already been released; I was left with such an urge to continue exploring Pandora that I don’t see a reason not to buy it. If I find a really cool sculpture piece of the banshees or the Toruk (a creature so awesome its difficult to describe), I would be really tempted to get it. Furthermore Cameron has already hinted at the possibility of making a sequel. While the story in this film is complete by itself, there are many ways it can expand. So much of it is taken from our history that another part of history can easily be adapted to fit into the universe (I’ll write an opinion piece in a few weeks of ways I think the story can go).
So in conclusion: Avatar is first and foremost a technological breakthrough; it is also a great story, a great universe, a beautiful visual experience, a landmark film, and the first consciously conceived franchise that could be considered an art form.