Avatar, and James Cameron 2.0

Just came from seeing James Cameron's Avatar. Loved it. The movie demands to be seen on the big screen. I won't bore you with a review of plot points and performances; that's what Google and Roger Ebert are for. I want to talk about the flaws of the movie, why they don't matter ... and why James Cameron is now officially in the "2.0" phase of his career.

I came up in the same era in which Cameron was cutting his teeth as a writer/director. I've lost count of how many times I've watched and rewatched his movies. I'm convinced that if there's any one storyteller to study, it's him. His movies are often dark and dystopian, packed with memorable, brilliantly-written ensemble casts. They're perfectly contained stories, yet feel untamed, subversive. They bristle, hungry to make with the violence -- and they always deliver it.

Something seemed to change within Cameron's stories in the 1990s. The decade started strong for superfans with Terminator 2 (dystopian, violent science fiction). A few years later, he delivered True Lies, an action comedy. It's an optimistic gunblazer, great popcorn fare. What the film lacked in brains or story, it more than compensated with action and visual effects. A rock-solid B for superfans like me.

Titanic became his obsession. Say what you will about the story (and I will, in a moment), but it was a cinematic masterpiece. Avatar is even better. Both deliver stories with the epic scope of the Truly Great films such as Gone With the Wind; seeing these things on anything less than a movie house screen is a mortal sin.

But both also represent a shift in Cameron's writing, which in many ways disappoints superfans like me ... but also showcases a breed of brilliance worthy of admiration. The man is smart, understands narrative, understands audiences -- and it's now clear that he deeply understands the business of making narratives for those audiences.

Long gone are Cameron's days of bubblegum-and-a-prayer movie budgets. He now makes supermovies -- stupefyingly expensive movies. Avatar's budget was at least $250 million, but rumors put the pricetag as high as $350 million. That's money that defies meaningful understanding.

Supermovies are high-risk endeavors for producers, and there are well-documented tradeoffs that come with superbudgets. Make the film PG-13 to ensure as many people as possible can see it ... make stories simpler to accommodate that mass appeal ... make the concepts of the story more universal as to snag the support of international markets and filmgoers ... it goes on. The worst supermovies, like Transformers 2, fully embrace these compromises and treat their audiences as idiot children.

Cameron does not, though savvy superfans like me spot the compromises in what I'm calling the  "2.0" stage of his career. Titanic's story has been characterized as "romance on a sinking boat," and Avatar is now getting the inevitable (if unfair) Dances With Wolves comparisons. Both parallels are completely accurate, and yet absolutely inaccurate. To keep focus on Avatar: It is not a dumb movie. It is a movie that has a simple storyline with nigh-universal theme and appeal. There isn't much development in many of the secondary characters. And I insist that's just fine.

Much like Titanic, the movie is gorgeous, and absolutely convincing in its execution. It's the first film I've ever seen in which the extended use of CGI didn't harm the overall product. I was spellbound throughout, dazzled and dwarfed by the world Cameron created. It's not a perfect story, but it's a perfect movie -- it fully embraces the big screen experience.

Did I pine for scenes that better-illustrated the main character's inner conflict, or better-explained the reasons why the villians were being so villainous? Sure. Do I think that, given the compromises a filmmaker must make when they're $300 million in the red, the movie suffered greatly from those omissions? No way.

Avatar is a cinematic masterwork. It doesn't hail from the uberbrainy tradition of the best science-fiction stories. (Neither did Star Wars back in 1977. And while it's my favorite movie, Star Wars is a rather simplistic and noisy tale.) It doesn't hail from Cameron's dark and dystopic sci-fi roots, either. But it is absolutely beautiful, ultimately optimistic, and an absolute blast to watch.

See it. On the big screen.