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A Titanic Sci-Fi Epic

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a film from James Cameron. In fact, it’s been about 12 years since we saw a little film from Cameron called Titanic. Avatar was conceived by Cameron nearly 15 years ago and has been in the works for about four years.

The film’s trailers position Avatar as a film in the same league as Terminator, Terminator 2 and Aliens. Has Cameron lost his touch? Is Avatar the real thing? Yes and no.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wounded Marine confined to a wheelchair. A soldier without the ability to fight, Jake is left with few choices. That is until his scientist brother who shares the same genome dies. The closing of this door opens one for Jake, as his brother was an integral part of a project involving “avatars” on a distant planet Pandora.

Apparently, there is a rare mineral on Pandora that will solve Earth’s energy problems. Unfortunately, the natives (Na’vi) on Pandora aren’t too keen on the idea of earthlings ruthlessly gutting their planet for said mineral. In an effort to come up with a diplomatic solution, the team from Earth bio-engineers avatars that humans can effectively drive. Plugged into one of these avatars, Jake finds a new lease on life.

Naturally, Jake falls in love with the ability to walk, run, jump, and even fly via his new avatar body. No less surprising is he finds himself falling in love with one of the Na’vi females, Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana). Likewise, the Na’vi culture begins to take hold of Jake and he finds himself stuck between two worlds.

Sam Worthington is convincing as Jake and manages to inject some intelligence, complexity, and depth into the character. Jake absorbs everything he experiences and evolves throughout his journey into the Na’vi culture. It’s easy to empathize with him and want him to get second chance.

Equally convincing is Jake’s boss/nemesis, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Colonel Quaritch views Jake’s insertion as an avatar as an excellent way to gather key information about the Na’vi that will ultimately spell their undoing. Lang gives Quaritch a ruthless, machiavellian energy that is impossible to ignore. He’s a “terminator” in human form. He can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be argued with, and he absolutely will not stop until the Na’Vi are removed.

Cameron has done something pretty impressive in Avatar. Specifically, he has taken a myriad of elements from the films explicitly referenced in the film’s trailers — Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2 — and fleshed them out.

Aliens and the Terminator films were visually spectacular and Avatar picks up where these films left off and raises the bar significantly. The marriage of live action and computer-generated visuals in Avatar is stunning from start to finish. There are even certain elements of the story that are reminiscent of the aforementioned films.

If there’s one area that leaves room for some criticism in Avatar, it’s the narrative. Overall, the story is relatively tight, but a fair amount of Avatar is predictable. You know Jake is going to “go native” once he starts hanging out with the Na’Vi and canoodling with Neytiri. Additionally, Cameron’s explanation for why Jake is able to connect with the Na’Vi is a bit thin and smacks of deus ex machina.

But, ultimately these are pretty minor quibbles. What’s relevant is Cameron’s story engages from start to finish, the key performances are solid, and Avatar is a visually astonishing film. While I wouldn’t put Avatar above Aliens or the Terminator films, it isn’t far short of the aforementioned.