December 17, 2009

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Avatar (PG-13)
James Cameron gives us 160-some minutes of cinematic razzmatazz, all CGI-ed and in three dimensions, in Avatar, the relentlessly hyped Next Big Thing in 3D movies.

Mr. “I’m king of the world” perhaps should have taken a cue from presidential spokespeople and other masters of lowering expectations and not let his movie be hyped as the second coming of George Lucas. Having the notion that this movie would be an unparalleled sci-fi experience pushed down my throat for the last few months makes it a little too easy to point out all the ways in which it, you know, isn’t.

It is however, very nifty-looking. The movie starts with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine, arriving in the year 2154 at Pandora, a lush planet many light years away and with a different enough atmosphere that humans must wear oxygen masks when outdoors (perhaps answering the question of why we don’t all just move here). He is one of a force of hired guns who have come to the planet to help harvest unobtainium, a shiny rock that provides a resource-depleted Earth with energy. (What, was the name MacGuffinium taken?) His particular task in this resource-mining endeavor is to attempt to connect with the natives, a people called the Na’vi.

The Na’vi are the blue creatures you’ve seen in the movie’s trailers and, along with the landscape, are much of the movie’s wow factor. I’ve seen them described as blue cat people. One might also think blue monkey people (they have tails and seem particularly adept at climbing). They also bring to mind lizards with their brilliant color and their seemingly fur-free skins. Or maybe very tall, svelte lemurs — yellow eyes, cat-like noses. Whatever they are, they appear to be about twice the size of the humans and are strong and fast.

The particular tribe we are concerned with lives in and around a massive tree that, like all living things, connects the Na’vi to their planet and to each other. They exhibit a kind of stylized variation of Native American culture similar to what you might see in a particularly New Agey cowboys-and-Indians movie. This is either a nice, easy way to draw a comparison between the humans’ attitudes toward the Na’vi and American settlers’ attitudes toward American natives or it’s vaguely disturbing and kind of demeaning. I recommend you not spend too much time dwelling.

Jake’s job is to “drive” the body of an Avatar, a Na’vi-human hybrid. His identical twin brother had been trained for the job but died before he could link with the avatar. Because the boys have identical genetics, the project officials want Jake to step into his place rather than let the expensive-to-create hybrid go to waste. Jake is happy to do it because avatar technology allows him the feeling of walking and running again.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) hopes Jake’s avatar self can help create bridges between the native population and the visiting resource-stealers. She wants to learn more about their culture and come to an understanding — there are some rather significant holes in what, specifically, this scientist who is a part of a mining expedition wants, but generally speaking she wants good things.

Not so much Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the military and civilian heads of the mining operation. They want information that will help them defeat the Na’vi, which stand in the way of their unobtainium-obtaining efforts.

Jake, going into the endeavor relatively uninterested in anybody’s goals but his own (walking and running on legs), soon finds himself rather enchanted by the Na’vi. It helps that one of his first contacts is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the pretty daughter of her tribe’s chief (her father) and its spiritual leader (her mother). Though she and the tribe know what he is (an “alien” inside a human body) they decide to teach him their ways, which involve particularly cool scenes of flying on what look like giant pterodactyls, scampering over greenery-heavy terrain and climbing up floating mountains. The more he gets to know them, the more he sympathizes with the Na’vi and their rights to protect their land — leading to one of those “but they can never take — our freedom!” type speeches that always precede a real knock-down, drag-out clash of peoples.

Cool, right? Romance, war, pterodactyls, talking blue lemurs, Marines, gun-ships and other cool war-machines shooting massive fiery weapons, Michelle Rodriguez playing one of those bad-ass Michelle Rodriguez characters — what more could you want? Honestly, I’m not sure. But there is a fundamental and necessary something missing here.

The movie is technically fascinating. All of the blue people — the Na’vi, the humans posing as Na’vi — are actually quite expressive for CGI humans (the actors were filmed doing their acting and the characters were created through motion capture; if you’re going to pick something to geek out about with this movie, I recommend focusing on these effects). The animals (those dragon-ish pterodactyls, a rhino-like hammer-headed creature, some rabid-dog-esque predators) and the flora (bioluminescent forests, monster-sized trees, flowers that look like tropical shells) are stunning — you almost wish you could pause the movie to get a closer look. And the landscape is as lovely as any epic.

But all this technical beauty doesn’t quite add up to an exciting movie experience. The dialogue is frequently flat and occasionally quite lame, almost George-Lucas-like at times, but bad dialogue hasn’t gotten in the way of my enjoyment of other action movies (the Star Wars trilogy, for example, or even the recent 2012). I liked the story fine (even if it is rather reminiscent of Battle for Terra, a not-so-thrilling cartoon from earlier this year) but it remains over there, apart from me, not a story that you lose yourself in. It occurred to me as I caught a snippet of Spider-Man recently that there is nothing in Avatar that quite grabs you by the guts the way that even just the music from that trilogy did. Even in the 16 endings to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King there is more oomph than in the one somehow limp-seeming ending here. The characters are fine but not fully alive, the story is workable but not captivating, the action is solid but you are always watching it, never quite part of it.

Having said that, if you are a fan of action or sci-fi or movie spectacle, Avatar is thoroughly worth seeing — and in 3-D, as it uses that technology better than any previous “live” action movie I’ve seen (even if the movie’s action isn’t completely live). I recommend going not on opening night but on some sleepy afternoon when you can plop your-polarized-glasses-wearing self dead center so you can get the full impact of effects that dazzle even if they don’t delight. B

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. Written and directed by James Cameron, Avatar is two hours and 40 minutes long and will open on Friday, Dec. 18. It is distributed by 20th Century Fox.