Just got back from this one, and I gots ta write!
4 years in making and costing an estimated 230 million dollars, Avatar has faced an insane amount of high anticipation. One might wonder if it's even possible for James Cameron to successfully follow up a hit as gargantuan has Titanic... believe it. Avatar is one of the most exciting cinematic experiences in years. A must-see.
The story is set on the distant planet of Pandora, where human beings have set up a mining operation to excavate a valuable mineral. The only problem is the indigenous population of Na'Vi, a race of 10-foot tall blue aliens with tails. Enter paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is given an avatar (a Na'Vi body he can remote control with his mind) and a mission to infiltrate the Na'Vi tribe and find out as much as he can about them so that the humans can politely ask them to get lost. His mission is going smoothly, until, of course, he falls in love with his Na'Vi mentor, Neytiri (excellently played by Zoe Saldana). With a now-found appreciation for the Na'Vi people and the natural harmony of their forest home, Jake realizes he can't go through with his mission, which doesn't sit too well with rough-and-tumble Col. Quaritch (a stand-out performance from Stephen Lang), who decides that politely asking the Na'Vi to get lost may not be as effective as a full out assault.
So what's the result? Simply this: If any director other than James Cameron had tried to make an extra-terrestrial version of Dances With Wolves starring great big smurfs with tails, well, that would have been just plain silly. But James Cameron did make it, and it is sensational! Sure, it's easy to tell exactly where the story's going at all times, and sure, the political subtext is pretty transparent (the Na'Vi are merely stand-ins for Native Americans), but Cameron is such a strong storyteller that it does not matter. He fills the screen with such compelling imagery and engaging performances, all you can do is sit back and get caught up in the adventure. The narrative moves with such economy and expert pacing that you'd never guess it was over 2.5 hours long. And despite his 12-year hiatus, it's clear that Cameron is still unsurpassed in staging action sequences.
I would be remiss not to highlight some of Cameron's exceptionally talented crew. Production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg present us with an alien world that is really not too different from our own, but is still a dazzling bioluminescent fantasy realm. It's like glow-in-the-dark mini-golf x 1026! It is superbly shot by Mauro Fiore and even more superbly edited by John Refoua and Stephen Rifkin. As you may have heard, the big breakthroughs here are the FX. Senior supervisor Joe Letteri is the only name I'll put down here, simply to save space, but it represents the hundreds and hundreds of artists who have produced the most photo-realistic CGI and motion capture ever put on film. But the wonders of Pandora is only half visual, the other half aural. Supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes hit a home run with this one, emphasizing the the strange yet somehow comforting sounds of the Pandoran jungle against the harsh clamour of the intruding machines. This effect is accentuated by the varying moods and rhythms of James Horner's score, outstanding in both its tenderest and most bombastic moments.
You can chalk up all of the people mentioned above for Oscar nominations (though Fiore may have a tricky time with the Cinematography branch), as well as nods for Cameron in Director and Picture. Wins for VFX and both Sound categories are sewn up.