Mark Reviews Movies

AVATAR (2009)

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)

Running Time: 2:42

Release Date: 12/18/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 17, 2009

You know how there's always that scene in a movie about a classical pianist where the prodigy plays a piece for the teacher. The teacher sits back, considers for a moments, and says something along the lines of, "You can play the notes and play them well, but where is the soul? Where is the feeling?"

That's kind of the reaction I have to James Cameron's decade-plus-long conceived, 200-million-plus-dollar achieved science-fiction epic Avatar. Yes, he can create an entirely other planet, full of wonderful sights, and populate it with, to date, the most convincing computer-generated characters. Yes, it's a whole lot of technical wizardry, and the man knows how to stage these things to good effect.

But where's the feeling? Where's the imagination—not in the creation of these visions (that's obvious) but in their execution?

The movie takes place on the faraway, forested planet of Pandora, which human beings have opened up and discovered the evil in their hearts, after finding the element Unobtainium (a MacGuffin name, if there ever was one). Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, has been sent by a nameless company to take over the work of his now-deceased, scientist twin brother. Because their DNA is a match, Sully can access his brother's expensive Avatar, a biological clone between humans and the planet's native humanoid species the Na'vi that works by remotely hooking up the subject's brain to the device/cyborg/clone/thing.

The Na'vi are some 10 to 12 feet tall, have tails, are blue, and can biologically and spiritually connect to the rest of Pandora's indigenous creatures, which include horse-like, jaguar-like, hyena-like, and pterodactyl-like animals—all a bit shinier and with more legs than their Earthly counterparts.

A lot of this information is passed along in a heavily expository opening act, where we get our first glimpses of the Company's massive drilling operation (Cameron certainly understands the importance of showing perspective of scale) and see much of the dangerous beasts the planet has to offer the Company's scientists and mercenaries. The stereotypical military man Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tells the new arrivals that his job to keep them alive but warns them that he will inevitably fail in doing so for some of them. Quaritch wants Sully to infiltrate the Na'vi and get important intel.

We get a chase and a fight with the monsters, and then we meet Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi princess-of-sorts, who brings Sully's Avatar back to her tribe, where he is to become one of them, even though they know he's a soldier and a biological/psychological/spiritual fraud to their kind.

The Na'vi are the most impressive implementation of computer effects to replicate the attributes of a tangible, living character. It's not simply the texturing but also the expressiveness they show and the intangible imitation of something resembling consciousness in their eyes. It stands to reason, as Cameron has, according to the credits, employed enough special effects companies to count on two hands to create this entire spectacle. If pure spectacle was his primary goal, then Cameron's accomplished it to a pretty fine degree.

The forests of Pandora are littered with strange plants, which glow a phosphorescent light or retract back into themselves after contact. The creatures may just be variations of ones to which we're accustomed (but with six legs), but they're imbued with enough grotesquery to seem unique. The technological advances of 22nd century humanity are highlighted back at Company headquarters but not to a degree of stopping the continuing exposition. Sure, the background Na'vi aren't as detailed as the main players, but when you've gotten into so much visual depth with the rest of the effects, that's not a complete deal-breaker.

Cameron employs this CG pageantry for an underdeveloped environmental theme that hints at a dichotomy of science and faith. The Na'vi believe they are one with the world around them through a "tree of souls," while Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) thinks, "There's something interesting going on there biologically" (One of the clunkier bits of some sporadically clunky dialogue, although I'll give Cameron credit for refraining from using the exclamation, "Go, go, go," more than once).

There's also the mandatory and predetermined relationship that blooms between Sully and Neytiri during montages of his development as a faux Na'vi, but none of characters ever move beyond plot movers to make whatever slim motivation they may have connect to us. The historical allegory of one group pushing another away from their home to obtain something else is transparent, especially once the climactic final battle arrives. Once there, we realize it has nothing of meaning to say about imperialism or colonialism, except that it's a good reason for a big, final battle.

That fight takes place in the air (gunships vs. Na'vi on their pterodactyl-like creatures amidst some impressive floating mountains) and on the ground (human grunts and human-controlled robots vs. Na'vi cavalry on their horse-like things, while we await the inevitable moment in which the much earlier introduced rhino-like creatures will save the day), but for the amount of action happening on screen, it's surprisingly flat and straightforward chaos (One flash of minor insanity occurs when Quaritch's massive robot loses its massive-robot-sized gun and pulls out another weapon).

I appreciate Cameron's visual pizzazz. The artistry behind the images is clear, and the technical implementation of them is the most seamless and persuasive so far. Beyond that detached appreciation, though, there's little more in which to be invested in Avatar.

Note: I saw Avatar in 3-D. It works the same way every other 3-D feature we've been hit with this year does: Better than we'd expect but with a darker image. What's the point of using a gimmick where the overall reaction to it is, "Well, it's better than it used to be," and if we can boast all this technology on the screen, why can't someone develop glasses that don't dim the image? Please, stop with the 3-D.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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