There are a number of complaints people tend to have about James Cameron’s “Avatar,” few of which I can really argue against. The films puts visuals ahead of story or character; that more often than not leads to disaster. Thematically, it is heavy handed and obvious, and the writing leaves a lot to be desired. In the grand scheme of things, do these problems really matter? In “Avatar,” I do not think they do. This is a film that survives — even thrives — on pure spectacle alone.


Starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, the film centers on a group of humans living and working on the alien planet known as Pandora. Pandora is a strange, dangerous, and beautiful place, populated by a native race known as the Na’vi. The Na’vi are monstrous in size and tower over humans, but they are technologically inferior. Thus, the Na’vi are dominated by the invading group of militant humans.


Our hero, Jake, is a former Marine who is chosen to take part in the Avatar Program, which allows humans to inhabit the body of a Na’vi. Being a paraplegic, Jake relishes the opportunity to run free again, and he finds new life in his alien body. He also finds a connection with the native race, and begins to identify with their struggle. Along with a few scientists chosen for the Avatar Program to study the alien race, Jake bands together with the native people to fight against the imperialist humans.


As mentioned before, there are a number of problems with the film. The characters are mostly flat, and the performances are weak across the board. The visual experience is what makes “Avatar” the box office success it is. Cameron has always been at the forefront of cinematic technology, and “Avatar” is his masterpiece on that front.


(Related: Film Director Profile: James Cameron)


Using motion capture technology, Cameron creates a world in Pandora that is magical and wondrous, yet tactile and believable. It is easy to get lost in the imagery of “Avatar,” and many have — considering the extraordinary box-office numbers that the film managed to pull off.


Cameron’s camera work, editing, and visual effects work are absolutely sublime. If nothing else, “Avatar” is a one of a kind experience visually that no film has been able to match before or since.


I must admit, though, the problems weigh the film down at times. The character of the colonel in charge of military efforts on Pandora, played by Stephen Lang, is a particular weak spot for “Avatar.” He is such a cardboard cutout of what a villain is supposed to look like; seeing him on screen sometimes becomes unbearable. The lack of depth of the colonel’s character comes both from Lang’s performance and Cameron’s subpar dialogue skill.


Still, “Avatar” was an event at the time of its release. Very few films earn that title and “Avatar” most certainly did. It is also worth mentioning that this was a mainstream Hollywood picture that was environmentalist, anti-war, and generally left wing, and that takes a lot of courage in this day and age when working with such a huge budget.- 3.5/4


Have you seen “Avatar?” What did you think? Let me know in the comments below, or reach out to me on Twitter @TuckerPoikonen.