Director: James Cameron
Running time: 201 minutes
Shrug off the wince-inducing dialogue. Try to flow with the familiar plot. And ignore the New Age-y, heart-on-the-sleeve tree-hugging politics.
James Cameron’s “Avatar” works anyway, amazingly so, plunging us into a world unlike any we’ve seen.
“Avatar” runs for more than 21/2 hours and only 30 minutes of that unfolds in the “real” world of actors and sets. The bulk of the movie takes place in the computer-rendered jungles and skies of Pandora, a moon where mountains float in mid air, where dragons flap overhead and where everything from the atmosphere to the wildlife is fatal to humans.
The film’s trailers don’t fully convey the credible magnificence of Cameron’s vision, one that sucks us in and makes us believe — especially if you watch “Avatar” in flawless 3-D. And the computer-generated characters are far more believable than the human ones.
Think of the film as a matching bookend to Cameron’s “Titanic” — a massive production, hugely expensive (reportedly the most costly film ever) that pushes film technology to the limit and, despite its creator’s ham-fisted tendencies, emerges triumphant.
We are introduced to the wonders of Pandora through Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an ex-Marine now confined to a wheelchair. The death of his twin has given Jake a second chance; he’s a genetic match with his late sibling and can take over his brother’s specialized work on Pandora.
Humans from far-distant Earth have discovered a mineral treasure trove deep in the ground. A big corporation — replete with machines of mass destruction and mercenary security contractors (think Haliburton/Blackwater) — is encroaching on the sacred lands of the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned humanoids who live in tribal simplicity in Pandora’s forests.
The earthlings have infiltrated Na’vi culture by creating avatars — flesh-and-blood aliens who can be “inhabited” by human operators from casket-like hibernation pods.
Sam’s job, according to project director Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), is to live as a Na’vi in an effort to reconcile the two races. But the mining company’s head of security, a gung-ho type who’s all bootblack and testosterone (an unabashedly hammy Stephen Lang), wants the former grunt to provide military intelligence, the better to defeat the natives in battle and drive them from their lands.
Yeah, it’s a space Western, closely resembling a certain film starring Kevin Costner. In fact, Hollywood wags were calling Cameron’s opus “Dances With Smurfs.” You get the picture … white man goes native.
But the wonder of “Avatar” is Cameron’s absolute control of the new filmmaking technologies. His concept of Pandora is total, from the thick gaseous atmosphere in which bits of leaves float like underwater algae to the photo-luminescent grass that glows when walked upon to the beautifully terrifying creatures that dwell there.
The Na’vi are long, elegant beings who move with feral feline grace and when upset snarl like bothered bobcats. Apart from a few feathers and fringed leather accessories they’re naked. They pack bows and arrows and regard everything in their world as sacred. They can meld their intellects to those of the horselike creatures and flying reptiles they ride.
Clearly, they’re the good guys. The humans, led by a soulless corporate suit (Giovanni Ribisi), are mostly rapacious thugs.
“Avatar” is one of those films in which acting takes second (or third) place to the overwhelming production values. Worthington, who is being hailed as Down Under’s next big thing and who was the best aspect of this summer’s “Terminator Salvation,” can’t do much with Cameron’s gee-whiz, G.I. Joe dialogue.
He’s much more interesting in his avatar body, with his facial expressions and physical movements beautifully rendered via motion-capture technology. A scene in which he first enters his Na’vi form and finds himself walking after years of paralysis is truly giddy, with the elated fellow staggering around on alien rubber legs like a newborn colt.
The film’s most satisfying dramatic element is the love story that develops between Jake’s avatar and the alien woman Neytiri, a princess of her tribe (think Pocahontas) who becomes his mentor and, eventually, soul mate. She’s played by Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the recent “Star Trek”), who is never seen in human form but nevertheless gives the film’s most complete performance thanks to subtly nuanced facial expressions that betray everything the character is thinking and feeling.
Astoundingly, these two computer-rendered beings generate genuine erotic heat. That’s some sort of first.
The film is crammed with extended set pieces such as a deadly nighttime chase through the forest or Jake learning to tame and control a fierce flying lizard. Some of these — particularly the Na’vi-vs.-human battle that concludes the movie — go on too long. Cameron’s delight with his new playthings is understandable, but “Avatar” could easily have been tightened up.
Still, it’s a humongous achievement.
Certain entertainments are so influential or mark such a significant turning point that they become one of those before-and-after landmarks. So it is with “Avatar,” a film that takes us about as far as you think possible and then pushes us even further.