James Cameron is a director I've long admired, but for too long his reputation has rested on two brilliant genre films: 1984's "The Terminator" and 1986's "Aliens". Beginning with 1989's "The Abyss", he began to devolve into a cold technician for whom emotional resonance remained out of reach; 1991's "Terminator 2" was bigger than the original but far from better, 1994's "True Lies" had no redeeming qualities other than a few standout action sequences, and 1997's "Titanic" enveloped ripe cheese in an elegantly expensive package but proved in the end that cheese is still cheese.
After a 12-year hiatus during which he made documentaries and worked on new technology, Cameron is back with "Avatar", his biggest and boldest film ever. I want to say that this is the return to form I've been waiting for since "Aliens", but honesty forces me to grudgingly admit that Cameron comes ever so close to hitting the bullseye, only to end up with what is strictly a qualified success.
For most of the running time, though, Cameron temporarily restored my faith in the possibilities of cinema. "Avatar" takes a simple skeleton of a plot, a sturdy metaphor for man's inhumanity to nature and to The Other, and drapes it in seamless special effects (Cameron is the only active director other than Peter Jackson who can pull of modern fx credibly) that tell a larger-than-life tale of space travel to alien lands, and one renegade's stand against the twin evils of big business and mindless militarism. What makes it work is that Cameron is no wimpy liberal -- he respects the timeless values of the warrior while decrying those who would impose themselves on others by brute force.
The fantastical imagery is simply astonishing, a flora and fauna of Cameron's devising which suggests classic sci-fi paperback covers come to technicolor life. And the dazzlingly choreographed action sequences show up Michael Bay and his ilk as a bunch of slop-artists. Cameron is also an underrated actors' director -- Sam Worthington proves he has what it takes for a bright future as a leading man, and Sigourney Weaver is at her authoritative best. As the alien princess, Zoe Saldana has all the spark she lacked in Star Trek (which bodes well for the film version of The Losers), while as the king and queen, Wes Studi and CCH Pounder are positively iconic; and, miracle of miracles, Michelle Rodriguez is tolerable, her usual spoiled-brat sneer nowhere to be seen here.
But a genre film is only as good as its villains, and here is where Cameron comes up short. Stephen Lang (dishonorable warmonger) and Giovanni Ribisi (corporate twerp) try their best with their cartoonish roles, but Cameron's dialogue, always his weak point, defeats them, particularly Lang, who also must struggle with a climax that streches the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point.
Still, this is overall the kind of MOVIE-MOVIE that gives popcorn cinema a good name, and for that alone it deserves respect, though not reverence. I want to give it an A minus or a B plus, but it'll have to settle for a solid B.