Avatar ★★★★

James Cameron’s Avatar is one of those films literally built around the feeling of wonder, encapsulating this complex, rich emotion and then fully putting it in its cinematic form. There are very few movies I have seen that have managed to do this, and even among them Avatar is particularly effective.

And no, when I say wonder I don’t purely mean scale, although granted this is a sliver of it. A film can be absolutely epic in size, but that doesn’t instantly define it as wondrous. Case in point, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) is an absolutely monstrous feature; a war film like no other of totally daunting proportions. But, unlike Avatar, it lacks that feeling of giddy awe towards its world. Avatar feels at points like it’s entirely constructed around this sense of grand wonder; like that's it’s driving force. And especially when considering the blatant, key themes of colonialism the film offers, this approach works perfectly.

To put it simply, the world of Pandora is beautiful, not solely through its visual appearance but through its seemingly infinite richness as well. Cameron effortlessly builds such a fully-realized science-fiction environment in broad, crisp strokes. Whether you are in the gray, human encampments or the lustrous, prospering Na’vi villages, every image is teeming with life and overflowing with detail. Not to mention, consistently this is such a gorgeous film to look at, playing with all sorts of cool colors to truly craft a world that is equal parts lush and mesmerizing. Brilliantly, there is a stark contrast between the cold, dull, engineered human environments and the vibrancy of the Na’vi ones – it’s this kind of thought (which isn’t unusual for Cameron) put into the imagery that continues to make this film stand-out, elevating it to a particular level of great and distinguishing it from other action features.

When glancing at the reviews, it seems there’s a plethora of common complaints lobbed against Avatar. Especially considering this is one of the HIGHEST grossing pictures of all time, this is not surprising – a position like this (especially for a film that isn’t necessarily old nor popular enough to be defined as a “classic”) is sure to garner hate. Two criticisms, in particular, are especially frequent. Perhaps the more lazy one is that the CGI is dated, which I simply can’t understand. Even today, nearly thirteen years after Avatar’s initial release, its glorious, computer-generated images continue to impress. Not gonna lie, this is perhaps one of my all time favorite usages of VFX to date. Clearly, Cameron spares absolutely no expense, using this tool to its fullest ability to craft a world like no other. THIS is how CGI should be used – not to merely create an image, but to create imagery that pushes the boundaries. This was revolutionary on it’s release, and quite frankly, it still is.

The second argument is that the story is familiar, boasting a common Dances With Wolves (1990) esque-premise that has been used for decades upon decades now. I will admit, in part I agree with this. With its familiar plot (which mostly just has a sci-fi spin) it’s not hard to tell where Avatar is going. Without a doubt, parts of it are indeed frustratingly predictable. Still, what I can’t do is deny it’s functionality. Yes, its plot and its characters are nothing new. But Cameron’s definite skill behind the camera can not be ignored – like in his other films, he clearly knows how to execute this premise, crafting a story that is just as tense, emotional, and gripping as a movie like The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986). The final battle is rivetting, the tree-bombing is tragic, Jakes arc is inspiring – each moment is packed with feeling. Simply put, this film is effective, which is rare for a movie with a concept that isn’t exactly new. With the added, creative sci-fi spin, Avatar feels fresh, and it’s only later that a film like Dances to Wolves even comes to mind.

But perhaps this is all the magic of an initial viewing. Perhaps this is just my fascination with Pandora, and Cameron’s stellar world-building overshadowing the poorer aspects and thus corrupting my vision. Then again, I can’t help but marvel at how some people refer to this as a slog. It’s such a wondrous, gripping, sci-fi vision, retelling a classic story in a fresh, vibrant form. I could not be more excited for its sequel, and I can’t wait to see how Cameron will continue to push the boundaries of VFX, as well as cinema as a whole.

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