I'm Going to See Avatar. What do I need to know?
#1. The movie is almost three hours, so if 3D makes you want to yack, bring a paper bag. Or go see it in 2D, where you won't have the benefit of the guy next to you going "My god, it's full of stars" to distract you from the basic plot and the really, REALLY shitty dialog (this is the man who wrote all of Edward Furlong's snappy slang in Terminator 2 after all).
#2. Get thee from the theater once the end credits start to roll, because the song that plays over them is dogshit and will damage your ears irreparably.
#3. If Discovery Channel documentaries like Walking With Dinosaurs and Planet Earth don't float your boat, the first 90 minutes of Avatar is going to bore the hell out of you.
Uh... what? Discovery Channel?
Yeah. Even after a decade trapped in a metal bubble filming starfish in IMAX, Cameron hasn't exactly gotten that documentary jones out of his system, and the first half of Avatar is basically a 90 minute travelogue. Granted, he's taking you on a tour of a completely imaginary, mindbendingly beautiful world, but nonetheless, the first hour of the film feels less like a narrative and more like a turbocharged episode of Meerkat Manor.
So, he finally did it. The King of the World finally fell on his face?
Nope! I'm not going to call it a "Game-Changer" like so many critics have, since pop-culture analysis shouldn't include phrases Herm Edwards would use. But there is more than a kernel of truth to the notion that Cameron has once again advanced the art of visual effects way beyond what people previously thought possible. And the episode of Meerkat Manor that he shot with this technology is a damned good one. Dry, but engrossing enough to get you through to the moment where the kitty people have sex--
--and then the film becomes a bugfuck-insane adaptation of Dances With Wolves.
OK, you're fucking with me, right?
Again, no. The plot goes like this: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a dumb, crippled jarhead. He is unfit for the task he is inheriting from his recently deceased older brother; Working with a team of scientists on the surface of the planet Pandora to harvest a very valuable metal called Unobtanium (Yeah, just wait it gets worse ...). The natives on this planet are the Na'vi, (... not yet ...) affectionately referred to as "Thundersmurfs" by the internet intelligentsia, a 9 foot tall cat people with a deep, spiritual connection to nature. Since James Cameron is writing this, it's a literal connection - there are fiber optic looking threads that stick out of their cat ponytails that can connect with trees, plants, and the six-legged wildlife of Pandora.
Jake is asked to infiltrate the tribe living in a giant tree directly above their Unobtanium haul.
Jake is more than happy to do so, mostly because he's a dumbass, but also because it means he gets to inhabit an Avatar: A cloned body of a Na'vi that he can operate from inside a tanning bed.
While Jake's in the jungles of Pandora, a giant space-panther almost eats him, but he's saved by a Na'vi girl named Ney'tiri ...
Oh Goddamnit, when will somebody stop letting James Cameron make up words?
Not this year, apparently. Anyways, Ney-tiri also happens to be a princess. Jake, now with the use of his legs and literal pussy to chase, goes native, undergoing the trials of Na'vi warriorhood and falling in love.
This is not appreciated by the company's military leader, a man so masculine that just looking at him makes Nick Fury's third eye cry. Commander McBadass is basically itching for an excuse to wipe these cats from the planet with massive gunships and gun-toting, knife wielding mechwarriors. There is tragedy, there is victory, there is aforementioned kitty-sex and noble sacrifice and important lessons learned about protecting the environment and respecting other cultures that won't in any way be used as a brickbat to score political points on some blowhard AM talk-show.
Fuck politics. Does shit get blowed up good or what?
And how, motherfucker. And how.
Unfortunately, before that happens, you're asked to buy into the romancing of Ney'tiri. It's the Titanic plan all over again - the guys will get their action and their spectacle, but they've gotta finish all of the romance on their plate first. Avatar's probably worse than Titanic on this note, and that's saying something considering what a slog the first 90 minutes of Titanic was.
But at least I'm not just staring at girls in corsets crying on a boat right?
Right. You're staring at some the best CGI ever seen on screen, period. I never quite bought the Na'vi, mostly because of their goofy design, but the uncanny valley that plagues Zemeckis' creepy cybercreatures is nowhere to be found here. These are amazingly, realistically expressive 9 foot tall Cat Warriors. The (unearned and forced) emotion Cameron asks the audience to feel for these natives is there on their faces, in their body language, in a way not seen since Gollum had a bitch session on a tree stump in 2002. This is Cameron's head, emptied onto the screen with more love and care than he's shown to any of his previous films.
So I'm watching James Cameron's brain explode for 3 hours?
Exactly. 2009 has been a year of oddly personal directorial statements across the board. Fantastic Mr. Fox nicely summarized everything that makes Wes Anderson what he is as a director, as was the Coen Bros A Serious Man, and for better or worse, Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. For all the faults that Avatar displays, and it displays a lot of them, there's something charming about Cameron excitedly showing off every last personal kink, tweak and obsession that pops his geek boner.
He's like an eager 12 year old genius, gushing about his science project. The storytelling is basically Dune, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars badly glued together, but it almost doesn't matter because he believes so hard in this earnestly silly pastiche, that it's a little adorable. It never means as much as he thinks it does when he starts killing his playthings and setting their world on fire, but it's a marvel nonetheless.
Just tell me if Cameron remembers how to do an action sequence.
HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.
For all the things Cameron has done onscreen to write and rewrite the modern action sequence time and again in Terminator, and then ALIENS, and then T2, and then True Lies, until the last 40 minutes of Avatar, there's never been a James Cameron aerial battle, all swooping and banking and pew-pew in grand Lucasian style circa 1977. And then he does it, and it is fucking glorious to behold. It's the opening of Revenge of the Sith, and the end of Return of the Jedi, and the powersuit fight from ALIENS and the battle for the bridge in Saving Private Ryan, as seamless as the love story is not, using the best special effects ever.
So it's worth it, then.
Your enjoyment of that last 40 minutes will depend on how much of the preceding 2 hours of shoddy storytelling, dialog, and characterization you want to hold against Cameron. Either you'll be carried away by the man's technical skill and naked enthusiasm to show you probably the most personal thing he's ever created, or you'll fidget uncomfortably and fight down inappropriate snickers. But he will grab you in that last 40, and he will remind you that yeah, he's been away for awhile, and he may not have ever been the King of the World, but when he wants to, he will kick any other director's ass at the art of ass kicking.
Check out Bobby's analysis of another special effects extravaganza, '2012' Sucks Worse Than the Mayans Could Have Predicted, or his look at The 5 Most Unintentionally Racist Movies About Racism.