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Theatrical Review


Sam Worthington

Sigourney Weaver

Zoe Saldana

Directed by:
James Cameron

It has been 12 years since James Cameron has had a mainstream motion picture in theatres, and the wait has been an agonizing one for fans of his work.

Sure, he's had some IMAX 3D documentaries, and has produced some content (Solaris, Dark Angel), but he hasn't actually directed a work of fiction since Titanic took the world by storm.

James Cameron is the man who has reinvented film more often than anyone else in recent history.  He turned Arnold Schwarzneggar into a major star with The Terminator.  Arnold had been in Conan the Barbarian prior to playing the titular role in Cameron's action flick, but the role of a killer robot from the future is what the Austrian was born to play. Cameron made one of few sequels that didn't suck when he brought us Aliens, he pushed computer animation further than had been done before with The Abyss, and he made another stellar sequel in Terminator 2 (and again revolutionized effects technology). 

Cameron's work on True Lies cemented Arnold Schwarneggar's action hero status, and gave Tom Arnold a role in a film he can be proud of to this day.

Then came Titanic. 

It's easy to forget now, but at the time, it was expected that Titanic would be the end of James Cameron's career.  The movie had gone famously over budget, costing around twice as much as it was originally budgeted.  It was not completed in time for its originally slated July, 1997 release date, meaning it missed the lucrative summer movie season.  It was a long movie, running 194 minutes (advertised to theatres as "2hrs 74mins" in the hopes they'd miss the "7", and book screens without realizing how tight scheduling would be), and it starred two actors who were, at the time, relatively little known.

Leonardo DiCaprio had achieved critical success for his work in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries and Marvin's Room, but hadn't been in any films that had really broken through. 

Kate Winslet had been in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (before Jackson was a household name, keep in mind) and had a role in Sense and Sensibility, but had been flying under the mainstream radar up until that point.

Titanic looked like it was going to make people forget what a disaster Waterworld was, until it opened, that is.

It didn't have a stellar opening weekend, but did a respectable $28M in business.  Christmas was the following weekend, and Titanic expanded its grosses to $35M, and then fell to $33M for the New Year's weekend.  It was after that when Titanic's story really took shape.  It brought in more than $20M per weekend up until the end of February, a box office streak that remains unmatched.  Titanic, of course, went on to be the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), eventually grossing $1.8 billion worldwide.

After Titanic, James Cameron effectively disappeared, and it seemed like had spent a decade sleeping on a mattress full of $1,000 bills while occasionally doing deep sea dives in the ocean and filming them in IMAX 3D.  What Cameron was really doing, however, was waiting for technology to get to the point where he could make Avatar.

Avatar is this generation's Star Wars.  It doesn't have the most original story, the plot doesn't have very many surprising or unusual twists, but what it does do is tell a timeless tale in a manner that only someone like James Cameron can pull off.

The budget for Avatar is largely a mystery, with official studio numbers at around $230M, and unofficial numbers at around $350M.  Whatever the number is, it's all been spent up there on the big screen.

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a crippled ex-Marine who steps in for his twin brother on a project that requires a specific DNA match.

Jake travels to a distant planet called Pandora to be an "Avatar driver".  This is a person who uses some high tech gadgetry to maintain a mental link between themselves and an Avatar, a biological entity that has been grown to appear to the native Pandoran species (the Na'vi) on the planet as one of their own.

Jake eventually embeds himself in the Na'vi village, and befriends Neytiri.  Throughout the course of the story, Jake comes to respect the Na'vi way of life, and to understand their core reasons for their resistance against the invading Earth people.

What's interesting about the way the story is told is that Cameron always takes the time to present the information in a way that seems plausible, and allows you to see all sides of the arguments in play.  The themes around invading "inferior" people for the resources under their feet, respecting the environment and not judging people by the colour of their skin are all there, but they all play into the main story instead of feeling like a ham-fisted "message movie".

Cameron has also realized an immersive, beautiful 3D world where it's impossible to tell what has been shot practically (very little, from what I understand) and what has been generated in computers.  He has effectively taken a leap in special effects technology that is equal to the leap that was taken when George Lucas unveiled Star Wars on the world in 1977.  This movie, more than any other, will be recognized as the turning point when the training wheels came off movie making and the only limits are the imaginations of the people making the movies (and, of course, budget).

Cameron has also created a box office juggernaut unlike any the world has seen since Titanic came out 12 years ago.  He's proven what has been said all along; if you make movies people want to see, they will come see them.

I've seen Avatar twice in theatres (both times in 3D, and if you haven't seen it yet, do everything you can to see it in Digital 3D), and will probably see it at least one more time on the big screen. 

I also look forward to the Blu-ray of this film.  While it inevitably will fall short of the cinema experience, it will offer the opportunity to look behind the curtain and understand how Cameron pulled off this unimaginable feat. 

I also look forward to what Cameron pulls out of his bag of tricks next.  I just hope it doesn't take 12 years to do it again.

Reader Comments (1)

Hey, I thought it was very "Dances With Wolves" in outer space. I loved it!!! Word on the street is two more Avatar sequels.... *fingers crossed*

January 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKris

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