I saw Avatar over the past weekend and found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I say that it was a surprise because at a plot and character level, the film was as predictable as early word had indicated. The question is: why does the movie succeed anyway?
The answer is not special effects, though they were great, or art design, which was also solid. The answer is in storytelling. James Cameron is a master storyteller and the way he paced and put the film together allowed him to plow over its weaknesses.
Much has been made about the special effects and I can’t give them short shrift. It’s the first time I’ve seen CG aliens that were completely convincing as living, breathing characters. I didn’t doubt for a moment that they were really there. As great as this is, though, I don’t think that alone would be enough to keep me engaged. I’m sure the robots in Transformers 2 were believable, but that didn’t make it a solid film.
The other thing the film is lauded for is the look of Pandora itself. It is a great looking place and the art design department should be commended. I still contend, though, that you can find equally beautiful designs in a handful of video games I’ve seen the art for. The magic isn’t just in the design, it’s in the way it was revealed to us.
With only a few exceptions, the movie follows its main character closely. Things are revealed to us as they’re revealed to him. Instead of opening the movie with a wide shot of the entire landscape, we find waterfalls, floating mountains, and giant trees as he comes upon them. In other movies, Sigourney Weaver’s character would’ve given us a breakdown of the various animals and plants at the beginning. Because she doesn’t in this film, when we come across the animals they’re a mystery. Is it going to be hostile (some are obviously so)? What do those dog things we’re hearing in the night scene look like? We don’t know until they step into his torchlight.
As a result of this, the movie surprises us through the entire story with reveals and discoveries. It keeps the suspense up, along with the sense of wonder. You want to know what you’re going to find next.
On another point, other action film directors should be strapped to chairs and forced to watch Cameron’s films. He understands the rhythms of a sequence, plus how to keep the action moving without getting the audience confused. In other words, his set pieces are genuinely thrilling, unlike other movies that just throw everything at you.
Finally, though the storyline is clichéd, it’s not badly done. There’s no Padme/Anakin dialogue to wince through or clumsy love scenes. It keeps things moving and doesn’t linger where it shouldn’t.
I feel I should say something about the 3-D. This is the first movie I’ve seen where it didn’t seem like a gimmick. Instead, it was used to immerse you further into the world. I also loved that it gave the movie hyper-real depth. You don’t notice space in the real world like you did in this one and I liked the effect it had.
In the end, it’s hard to say if it’s a movie for the ages. I’m 95% sure it will lose its charm for me on a TV screen. As a theater viewing experience, it’s unmatched by anything in recent memory. As an example of cinematic storytelling, it’s the work of a master. As an overall film, the script may keep it from being one of the all time greats. For that, I’ll go back and watch Aliens again.