Never before have so many cynics wanted to hate a movie, and never have they been so thoroughly thwarted, as with James Cameron’s Avatar. I had more than my share of doubts going into the screening. While Titanic was not without its merits, it hardly left me waiting with baited breath for the next Cameron epic. The years of promises about a groundbreaking movie were tiresome. Surely he had “King of the World” syndrome, a megalomania that pushed him to pursue record-breaking budgets as an end to themselves. Then, the Avatar trailer was released. I joined most of the movie-going world in a combination of head-scratching bewilderment and derisive laughter.
But two hours and 46 minutes after the opening credits, I walked out of the theater with the full realization that the cinematic experience had changed. I felt like those early moviegoers at the turn of the last century, who ducked as the train sped toward the camera. I was transported back to 1977, watching the Imperial Cruiser loom onto screen, seeming to go on forever, and later lost in amazement at the cantina scene.
The new 3D technology—which, previously, I have always found gimmicky and distracting, a waste of time and money so that some projectile can sort-of appear to come at you—was impressive (and admirably subtle) as the crew floated in space and later examined projection displays at home base on the new world of Pandora. Skepticism was still high, if falling, as they explained how the avatars were grown with a combination of human and Na’vi (the humanoid inhabitants of Pandora) DNA and mind-controlled by humans lying safely in pods.
Then the avatars introduced us to the forests of Pandora, and all remaining skepticism fell away. It was far more than the blue Na’vi (who look silly in YouTube small-screen 2D, but are impressively exotic and believable, filled with interesting details, in big-screen 3D). It was the flora and fauna that got me. The small jellyfish-like creatures floating through the air, the giant trees and intricate root structures, the forest floor that lights faintly as the Na’vi walk. Later, we see floating mountains and dragon-like creatures that form physical and spiritual bonds with a chosen Na’vi. James Cameron has created the first cinematic world that truly captures the otherness of an imaginary world, the first to compete with the rich world that, previously, only the mind’s eye, fed by the best science fiction writers, could construct. This was more than eye candy and technical wizardry. Avatar is a testament to the power of imagination and the power of a new cinema.
From the moment of that first forest encounter, I was hooked. Granted, the story structure is paint-by-numbers epic archetype. There is no question where the story is heading as it unfolds. You know Jack, the human protagonist, is going to transform from spy to sympathizer. You know there’s a momentous battle coming, with the typical all-seem-lost moment preceding the triumphant return and one-on-one showdown between the two key players. You know the dragon-like creatures are going to be crucial to a coming battle, and the lead creature even more so.
But it hardly matters, in the same it way a similar epic battle structure hardly detracts from the Battle of Helm’s Deep. There’s a deeper story and rich world you’re already invested in, and by that point, you’ve surrendered to wondrous entertainment and you just enjoy the ride. Sure, Tolkien had a much deeper and more nuanced story. Cameron’s environmental and anti-imperialist messages are thin, obvious and at times clunky, although they do give the basic love story some welcome, if not depth, texture. And Peter Jackson had a better ear for dialogue and a way of surprising while unveiling a known plot.
Nonetheless, while Cameron may not tell the most original of stories and his dialogue isn’t great—certainly not soaring or gritty, but with only a few missteps—he is a masterful entertainer, one of cinema’s best. He takes big-story archetypes—the machine revolt against humanity, the doomed ocean liner, epic corporate Goliath versus nature-loving David battles—stories where you know the end and, often, how you’ll get there, and tells them in such a way that they pull you in and fascinate you, in spite of what you already know. He’s mastered the mechanics of storytelling. He fills his stories with the little details and a superb sense of pacing that keeps you invested.
Avatar does not drag during its entire nearly-three-hour run. Combine that monumental achievement with the monumental achievement of imagination and technical mastery on display in the visuals and you have a high point in cinema. What Cameron lacks in storytelling shock, he more than makes up for in utter awe. After watching Avatar, there can be no doubt that this movie—despite what it lacks—is a classic that—like Wizard of Oz (a Cameron favorite) and Star Wars—will be watched by generations to come.