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Year: 2009
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: James Cameron
Producer: Jon Landau
Writer: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi

A century ago, cinemagoers sat and gasped in wonder and delight as a steam train raced towards them on the tracks. In an age of lithography and etchings, it was the closest thing they'd seen to reality. Moving pictures, just like you were there watching it happen right in front of you!

One way or another, the craft of moviemaking in general and special effects in particular have been about coming as close to reality as possible, even if that reality is found on a far off moon called Pandora 150 years in the future.

So in what must be the most anticipated movie of the 21st century so far, James Cameron and his effects team have to move closer to reality than any filmmakers before them. Today, movies themselves are special effects, a few actors scattered here and there after jumping around in front of green screens for software engineers to put everything else in later. Not even the new generation of 3D is terribly new after 12 months or so of it. To really impress, Cameron had not only to match current moviemaking technology but surpass it.

Technically, Avatar does so in spades. The detail on and around Pandora is as astounding as the creativity that went into designing and animating every last creature, leaf and gust of wind. Cameron dreamed big, from floating mountains to the wildlife, and the film brings it all to life spectacularly as the virtual camera follows air-going creatures that wheel and dive through the air and terrain, the bioluminescence of Pandora's forests at night and the sheer scope of his imagined world.

It's the technology and not the plot that's the reason we've waited over a decade for Cameron to make the film. The story is something you've seen a hundred times as brutish, morally corrupt and well-armed humans attempt to oust a spiritual, Gaia-inspired population from their homes. It riffs on everything from Native American mythologies to (as everyone's been saying) Ferngully.

Like Titanic, the script is far from perfect. Resonant clunks ring across the theatre during several lines that needed a few more passes, and the word 'predictable' bubbles up in your mind more than once. Themes Cameron fans wax lyrical about such as finding heart and soul amid military hardware and how technology is destined to teach us how to be human are present but they're thin - he's never been anything other than an action thriller director.

So like many films of late it's the pizzazz on screen that matters. But unlike most other computer-generated movies, it's not just pretty backdrops that are made of pixels. For long stretches, we're asked not just to follow but believe in slender blue 10 foot tall beings called the Na'vi. When marine Sully (Worthington) takes part in experiments to project his consciousness onto the body of a Na'vi to work his way into their good graces and find what his superiors need to know, we see his training as a Na'vi hunter, his burgeoning attraction to his teacher and partner Neytiri (Saldana), and you'll buy every second of it.

And therein lies Avatar's true revolution - not 3D, not depth of field in computer generated imagery, but the synthespian. Applying the design of each Na'vi to his actors in motion capture suits, Cameron ensures they contain none of the icky 'uncanny valley' that hobbled previous computer generated people (Terminator 2, Beowulf, Polar Express).

As Sully, Neytiri and Grace (Weaver), they move right, their eyes and faces twitch right, and with the 3D world drawing you into the depth and breadth of Pandora, you'll believe wholeheartedly the Na'vi exist. The weakest link is actually Worthington as Jake Sully, who's comfortable in the motion capture suit when running and jumping but whose performance and accent flounders when the scene calls for drama. The only explanation for his explosively rising star power in Hollywood must be that he still comes cheap.

Is it a revolution on a par with colour, sound and that steam train sending flapper-era movie fans agape? Possibly, but if there's one to be had here, Cameron is the director to show the way.

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