James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the most amazing … no, wait: the most staggeringly amazing, jaw-droppingly triple-awesome unbelievable movie ever made. That’s the feeling among the reviewers aggregated at Rotten Tomatoes, anyway. I quote:
“An overwhelming feast of visual artistry unlike anything you have ever seen before.”
“Much more than a film. It’s a prescribed cinematic experience.”
“An entertainment to be not just seen but absorbed on a molecular level.”
“Cameron has achieved no less than a rebirth of cinema.”
“Make sure you can say you were there when the future of cinema began.”
What, are we all techno-fanboys now? Or just unpaid studio publicists? “Avatar” without question represents a new high point in motion-capture technology — the digital technique whereby the movements of human actors are used as the armature for animating fanciful characters. (Peter Jackson’s Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” was the breakthrough in this area.) And the movie offers deep 3-D panoramas of computer-generated imagery that really are stunning. (For the first two hours, anyway — at which point there are still 40-some minutes left to go.)
But all of this expensive tech has been put at the service of a story so triflingly generic, you wonder why anyone would bother to tell it. Briefly: Paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gets selected to participate in the Avatar program, a sort of military-industrial project engaged in plundering the natural resources of the faraway planet of Pandora. Of particular interest is a mineral called “unobtainium” (yes, really), which could be the solution to the apparently eternal energy crisis back on Earth. Unfortunately, Pandora’s inhabitants, the Na’vi — who are bright blue and 10 feet tall, with long, whippy tails — are settled on a vast field of this stuff, and they don’t want to move. The humans are of two minds about this problem. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who heads the science team to which Jake has been assigned, wants to befriend the Na’vi and negotiate with them. To this end, “avatars” have been created — Na’vi-like figures fabricated out of human and Na’vi DNA that can be remotely powered by human “drivers” in the base headquarters and sent out among the natives to make friends and learn their language and their charmingly primitive ways.
On the other hand, the project’s snarling security chief, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and resident corporate greedhead Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) would just as soon exterminate the Na’vi (“fly-bitten savages who live in trees,” as Selfridge puts it) and seize their land. To this end, Quaritch secretly recruits Jake to bring back useful military intel from his nice-making science explorations among the Na’vi. Jake is okay with this at first, until he really gets to know the locals — especially a Na’vi princess called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). So the plot boils down to this: Can Jake win Neytiri’s heart (or whatever) and foil his fellow humans’ plan for corporate conquest? Even as the movie’s long, unhurried opening sequences are laying out all the relevant info, you can hear those questions answering themselves.
Fortunately, Cameron is a great action director. There’s a lot to look at here: the luminescent glow of the jungle in which the Na’vi live, the ancient Tree of Souls with which they commune, a spectacular range of mountains hanging high in the sky up above Pandora — and there’s a lot going on. The director and his battalion of digital technicians have cooked up a fantastical bestiary of Pandoran creatures — futuristic hammerhead rhinos; dogfighting battle dragons; and, in one virtuoso sequence, a vicious six-legged thingy that chases Jake through the jungle and off the edge of a cliff (see trailer). The meticulous detail in which these creatures have been rendered, and the complexity with which they’re arrayed in the film’s exotic environments, are undeniable marvels of moviemaking art.
Unfortunately, whenever the action lets up and we’re returned to the piddling story, the picture slumps like a failed soufflé. It’s also heavily laced with political instruction of a most familiar sort. Cameron, who’s now 55, is a self-acknowledged aging hippie, and his boomer worldview is strictly by-the-numbers. Quaritch and Selfridge are evil Americans despoiling the Na’vi’s idyllic planet in exactly the same way that the humans have (we’re told) trashed their own native orb. The invaders are armed with deplorable corporate technology (an odd animosity in a major-studio movie that reportedly cost more than $300 million to make), and they speak the familiar — and here rather anachronistic — language of contemporary American warmongering. (“We will fight terror with terror!” “It’s some kind of shock-and-awe campaign!”)
The Na’vi, on the other hand, with their bows and arrows and long braided hair, are stand-ins for every spiritually astute and ecologically conscientious indigenous population ever ground down under the heel of rampaging Western imperialism. They appear to have no warlike impulses themselves, and they live in complete harmony with their environment. (They even talk to trees.) Why, the movie asks, as if the question were new, can’t we be more like them?
The central question that “Avatar” poses, however, is whether expensively advanced filmmaking technology is enough in itself to carry a whole film. The story here is a simple mash-up of every old cowboys-and-Indians and jungle-adventure movie of the 1930s and ’40s. And while Saldana manages to project shadings of emotion through her digital carapace, and Worthington and Joel David Moore (as a friendly biologist) bring nice-guy appeal to their roles, the characters are blandly conceived. We watch them go about their business advancing the predictable plot and uttering Cameron’s sometimes clunky dialogue (“The sky people have sent us a message!” “This land is our land!”), and we wonder when the battle-dragons will come swooping back in to break the tedium. In the story, the machines don’t win, of course; but in the tech-centric scheme of the movie, they conquer all.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Avatar.”
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