It seems redundant and a waste of time to filter any review of Avatar through personal expectation, commercial potential, or any other sense of cultural anticipation. Although the majority of my colleagues offer nothing less than thoughtful, measured responses in their own reviews and examinations, I'll leave it to them to prognosticate or contextualize its success or failure in the context of James Cameron's filmography, much less the last 12 years of film history. Because the bottom line is that Avatar desperately needs to be considered as its own effort, not a groundbreaker or a potential blockbuster or anything else. In which case Cameron's latest is scary and exciting and entertaining as hell, even if it's far too early – and too conventional in too many ways - to herald it as any kind of masterpiece.
Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) stars as Jake Sully, the disabled soldier-brother of a scientist who was unfortunately killed before he could complete his work brokering a deal between humans and the alien race Na'vi on a distant, futuristic planet called Pandora. Jake is immediately recruited by the project's scientific, military and corporate contingents to serve the interests of each group's managers (played by Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi, respectively), but soon discovers that his immersion in the world of the Na'vi is not without charms that potentially preclude their demands. After meeting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na'vi warrior assigned to initiate and assimilate him in the ways of their culture and beliefs, Jake soon finds himself at a crossroads between the humans who gave him a new opportunity to serve, and the Na'vi, who essentially offer him a new opportunity to live.
Having felt energized by the footage shown at Comic-Con, I held hope but few expectations going into Avatar (as James Cameron himself described it) as the supposed redeemer and transformer of contemporary cinema. The truth is that it's neither the best film nor the worst of the year, but it's certainly one of the most engaging, at least on a commercial level; Cameron seems to understand that great technological advances must be paired with familiar story structures in order for them to find a comfortable place as true game-changers or even favorites, and offers a wholly conventional narrative against which he exercises his considerable creativity as a technologist and forward-thinker in filmmaking.
What this means is that the movie acquiesces often – indeed, too frequently – to cliché when it should expand its visual and technical innovation to include storytelling itself. Do we really need another film in which a onetime undercover agent confesses his deception to the people whom he now loves? Much less the idea that the agent is slowly but surely seduced by the world in which he has immersed himself? Cameron chooses both the military and corporations as his villains in the piece (as if neither would be sufficiently evil on their own), exploiting nature and indigenous people in equal measures to exemplify their nobility, and highlight human indifference to flora and fauna, to teach a pointedly overstated lesson about the environment and militarization and profiteering that feels worth ignoring whether you disagree with it or empathize emphatically.
Admittedly, Cameron has seldom operated in more than two-dimensional characterizations, even if he's made the most of them narratively and viscerally; as much as I've loved his past films, they're better known and appreciated for their set-ups and set pieces than the subtleties of their ideas. At the same time, however, he often manages to uncover a few remarkable truths in spite of himself, elevating those otherwise obvious messages beyond their superficial revelations. While Stephen Lang's Colonel Quaritch is essentially a greatest-hits collection of militaristic rhetoric (at one point he says "we'll fight terror with terror"), his condescending screed about the frivolity of the Na'vi value system provides an important lesson in the judgment and criticism of religions of other groups that happen to differ from our own.
Indeed, it's Cameron's conception of a world interconnected via nature that resonates the most strongly, not because it's touchy-feely or otherwise simplistic, but because it's a promising (although sometimes underdeveloped) examination of the one in which we already live. The Na'vi celebrate and literally connect with the other creatures on Pandora, and there's an exhilarating discovery for audiences of the way these warrior clans utilize and acknowledge the plant and animal-based resources of the planet; that Cameron adds a tendril-like ponytail for the natives to literally connect to their conquests and even completely ignored their "gods" or ancestors may seem excessive, but it allows for an appreciation of the respect earned and shared between the various creatures that, quite frankly, is never dealt with or even actively ignored by other filmmakers operating on Cameron's level of spectacle.
In terms of 3D and the film's use of the burgeoning technology, Cameron wisely avoids almost any of the Z-axis tricks that have been used in films past, instead creating more modest physical depth in the characters and the space they inhabit and allowing the audience to view the film as if through a window, and therefore more authentically to their real lives (in other words, without stuff flying at them). At the same time, Cameron offers subtle but effective visual cues – such as the ubiquitous presence of bugs and other small creatures buzzing around the main characters – to convey depth of field and a spatially-sensitive environment that's intimate and windowlike, ultimately lulling viewers into forgetting they're watching a 3D movie even if that dimensionality is nonetheless essential to appreciating Cameron's dexterous manipulation of the action.
Meanwhile, of course, the visual energy of the film is undeniable, and the CGI – its inability to really transform our current expectations aside – legitimizes Cameron's claims that he's on some next-level artistry. The final battle itself is destined to be one of those sequences that gets aped, imitated and ripped off given the variety and virtuosity of the battles and their storytelling strategies, but the consistency of individual, pulse-pounding moments using different geography and characters is visually and emotionally overwhelming. Unlike most movies, where there are cutaways or careful edits that allow for filmmakers to combine the work of their actors and their computer artists, Cameron creates a seamless reality that doesn't feel quite real, but somehow manages to make you forget that any of it's fake, again immersing you in his vision, and as a result creating a sort of fugue state that precedes or simply surpasses viewers' increasing sophistication at discerning the difference between the two.
As a preliminary analysis of the film, there's no reason to go more in-depth into Cameron's characterizations or storytelling, much less his technological experiments and advancements, mostly because the film should be viewed with as few expectations as possible. This of course is true of any movie, but it's almost impossible to enter into a movie some 12-plus years in the making, prophesized by its writer-director as the second coming of cinema itself, without harboring some preliminary reaction or feeling. Ultimately, however, I do think that Cameron's latest is a terrific movie, and I look forward to watching and examining it again, even if some of its shortcomings require no more than one viewing to notice. The reason for this isn't because I hope that I'll some day overlook them, or excuse them among Avatar's more exceptional aspects, but because I realize that even if you aren't quite able to make something that qualifies as a game changer, at least in his case, it's still good enough just to be the best player on the field.
Note: This film isn't due in theaters until December 18th.