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Otherworldly Avatar Familiar in the Worst Way

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2009 18 Dec
Otherworldly <i>Avatar</i> Familiar in the Worst Way

Release Date:  December 18, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)
Genre:  Science Fiction
Run Time:  161 min.
Director:  James Cameron
Actors:  Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Wes Studi

If you haven't heard anything about Avatar, you soon will. The epic sci-fi blockbuster-to-be from writer-director James Cameron arrives after years of development—Cameron conceived the story in the early 1990s—hundreds of millions of dollars spent, and great anticipation from Cameron's fans, as well as from the movie industry itself.

Although movie theaters are seeing an uptick in box-office receipts during another year of a recessionary economy in North America, they also are facing new technologies and delivery mechanisms that potentially threaten their business. The advance of motion-capture and 3D technologies has given a recent lift to the industry, but those technologies have continued to bump up against certain limits in telling absorbing stories on the big screen. A palpable fear is that younger generations will turn to video games and other sources of entertainment that delivery sensory experiences that moviegoing can't match?

To that end, exhibitors are looking to Cameron as a potential savior. Perhaps Avatar, rumored to be a special-effects extravaganza that goes where no film has gone before, can usher in a new era of moviegoing for the masses. After all, his last film, Titanic, was a coronation for Cameron, who had delivered several mega hits—e.g., both Terminator films and Aliens—before Titanic staggered audiences, set box-office records and garnered Oscar gold. When Cameron arrogantly dubbed himself "king of the world," it was hard to argue the point. He had conquered months of negative publicity and delivered a film that remains the highest-grossing film of all time.

But that was 12 years ago. Avatar, Cameron's encore to Titanic, has been so long discussed—and ridiculed and lampooned as reports of its ballooning budget surfaced— that it seemed a final cut might never arrive.

It's here, at last, and with production costs (before any marketing expenses) pegged at between $230 million and $300 million, the film will need to make a startling amount of money in ticket sales just to break even, not to mention move into the black. Whether or not it gets to that level will depend on the degree to which viewers are interested in the film's two most notable elements—its lush visuals and its soggy story, which blends Native-American style spirituality with a heavy dose of environmentalism and antiwar rhetoric.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-bound former Marine who, in the year 2154, takes his deceased brother's place on a corporate mission to Pandora—home to a mineral called unobtainium that humans must harvest to preserve Earth. Not only is Pandora's air toxic, but its inhabitants, the Na'vi, kill outsiders by shooting poison-tipped darts at them.

Sully's genetic material mirrors that of his brother, making him a perfect match for an assigned avatar—an elongated, blue hybrid body that allows humans to survive Pandora's atmosphere. His mission is to provide security for Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), but Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) have other ideas for Sully. They want him to befriend the Na'vi and convince them to leave their homes, which sit on a mother lode of unobtainium.

The early moments of Sully's life as an avatar are the most enjoyable. In an avatar body, Sully can walk again, and he can barely contain his excitement. However, his brash confidence soon gets him into trouble, and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi, must come to his rescue. The scenes of Sully's confrontations with the creatures on Pandora are gripping and eye-popping, reminiscent of similar encounters between men and beasts in King Kong and Jurassic Park.

With the help of the Na'vi, who slowly accept him, Sully learns how to live among the Pandora wildlife—both on the ground and in the air. As he becomes more attuned to the Na'vi and their environment, he learns to respect their culture and their religion. The Na'vi listen to "the voice of their ancestors" at a holy tree—a "place where prayers are heard, and sometimes answered." There they worship a goddess named Eywa who is, we're told, "made up of every living thing." Augustine, meanwhile, uses her time on Pandora to research the trees and plants, which, she concludes, make up "a global network" that is threatened by Quaritch's campaign to clear the Na'vi from their homes and extract Pandora's vital resource.

In describing the military assault on Pandora, Cameron cribs terminology from the ongoing war on terrorism and puts it in the mouths of the film's villains, who proclaim a "shock and awe campaign" of "pre-emptive action," as they "fight terror with terror." Cameron's sympathies, and the movie's, clearly are with the Na'vi—and against the military and corporate men.

For all the talk about how groundbreaking Avatar's visuals are, Cameron's story is planted firmly on familiar terrain. It's musty and dank—we've been here many times, whether in stories about Native Americans or rainforests. Cameron may take his characters to another world, but the plot has a by-the-numbers familiarity that works against the more innovative aspects of the final product.

The actors valiantly try to transcend Cameron's clunky dialogue. The romance between Worthington and Saldana isn't ineffective, but neither is it as captivating as the human romance that was at the center of Titanic. Lang and Ribisi make the most of their diabolical characters, while Weaver brings conviction, and some appropriate sadness, to her own thudding lines.

Should you see Avatar? The intense publicity surrounding the film, as well as several ecstatic early reviews, have set the bar very high. For this critic, Avatar doesn't come anywhere near clearing that bar—not in the performances, not in the lavish visuals and certainly not in the film's entirely derivative storytelling. In order to attain even a modicum of satisfaction from the film, one should see it only on a big screen, preferably in 3D. However, if you go strictly for the experience, be prepared for a gooey, New Age romance with thematic elements that will likely make you squirm.

Avatar may represent the future of film visuals, but its script is strictly retro.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; foul language; a man in a wheelchair is referred to as "Special K" and "meals on wheels"; Na'vi are referred to as "savages"; "kiss my …"
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Multiple scenes of smoking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  The Na'vis' breasts and buttocks are partially covered; a sex scene is shot from above and involves kissing and caressing; a crude reference to "local tail."
  • Violence/Crime:  Dead body of robbery victim is shown; the Na'vi fire poison-tipped darts at avatars; Sully is grabbed by a creature, tossed, then jumps off a cliff; dog-like creatures attack Sully, who fends them off with a torch; one creature is shot with an arrow; the creature's neck is pierced with a knife; Sully falls off a horse-like creature; destruction of forest and Na'vi environment; gunfire; a knife fight; a Na'vi is impaled; punching; a person points a gun into the neck of a guard.
  • Religion:  A colonel tells his men, "If there is a hell, you might want to go there for a little R&R"; a tree is said to be sacred, home to "very pure spirits"; the Na'vi deity is a goddess named Eywa, whose will is interpreted by a Na'vi mystic; the Na'vi fear "demons"; the Na'vi have a "spiritual leader, like a shaman"; Eywa is "made up of every living thing"; Na'vi are said to embrace "tree-hugger crap"; the Na'vi say everyone is born twice; a holy tree is called a "place for prayers to be heard—and sometimes answered"; a Na'vi worship service of sorts, at their holy tree.