The most highly anticipated film of the year, “Avatar” marks director James Cameron’s first feature film since 1997’s “Titanic.” The notoriously meticulous filmmaker has painstakingly prepared this film, utilizing the largest motion picture budget to date. An estimated $300 million went into the making of this science fiction epic which boasts revolutionary 3-D imagery and supposedly “photo-real” special effects. Given Cameron’s exceptional track record for delivering some of the most successful mega-budget blockbusters of all time, “Avatar” has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, it’s my least favorite fictional film Cameron’s ever directed (not including his first film, “Piranha II: The Spawning”). Fortunately for Cameron, it’s still an impressive spectacle.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, receives an exceptional opportunity to take the place of his fallen scientist brother on an otherworld mission. When he arrives on the hostile planet Pandora, he is trained to “drive” a genetically engineered alien body in order to study and improve relations with the local sentient natives. These giant, blue, cat-like humanoids – known as the Na’vi – use primitive weaponry and constantly interfere with the Earth corporation’s efforts to mine a valuable mineral dubbed “unobtainium” found only on Pandora. Jake quickly takes to his alien “avatar,” not only because this artificial body has working legs, but because he becomes enchanted with the Na’vi, particularly the chieftain’s strong-willed daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). When the corporation becomes impatient with the Na’vi’s stubborn defiance, they resort to more violent solutions, forcing Jake to choose sides.
Just as “Waterworld” was “The Road Warrior” on water, “Avatar” is “Dances with Wolves” in outer space. I wasn’t excited about the idea of reimagining this recent classic with a bunch of blue cat-people in space. I cringed at the potential political and race issues that would most certainly apply to such a story. My fears were well-founded because “Avatar” handles those issues clumsily. I’ve grown tired of seeing films where a strapping outsider comes to the rescue of proud-yet-desperate minorities from the injustices of his own people. It rarely rings true and usually ends up insulting the culture in a poor attempt at political correctness. It’s like saying these minorities can’t fend for themselves without the help of a savior from the majority, which I think is a really lousy message. Add to that the obvious and tired Native American motifs and glaring Hollywood clichés and you’ve got a poorly constructed concept.
Where “Avatar” succeeds is in its technical achievements. Cameron’s claims of “photo-real” CGI effects were mostly exaggerated, but several key shots certainly qualified and completely took my breath away. The rest felt like next generation video game graphics and obvious – yet superbly constructed – green screen backgrounds. This film did trail blaze some spectacular achievements in 3-D special effects and production design. The world of Pandora, the flora/fauna designs and the details paid to the design of the planet’s ecology/aesthetics were no less than visionary. Genius illustrator and conceptual designer Wayne Barlowe, along with Neville Page, created the life forms of Pandora and topped himself once again with his fantastic artistry.
The human tech felt ripped off from the “Halo” videogames, which in turn ripped off their designs from James Cameron’s “Aliens,” so no foul there. My largest complaints came from the Na’vi design. They appeared too heavily inspired by Japanese Anime characters and evoked a silly “Dungeons and Dragons” elf vibe rather than a more edgy sci-fi alien. Dubbed the “ThunderSmurfs” by critical fans, this design might have flown in past decades, but by today’s standards seem juvenile and dated. If this aspect bothers you as much as it did me, fear not… You learn to accept it and you’ll finally get over it about halfway through the film.
I didn’t respect the performances that much because frankly, they weren’t all that important. The characters were one-dimensional archetypes and the actors merely had to go through the motions. One exception was Sigourney Weaver’s character of Dr. Augustine who played out like a more tech-savvy version of her portrayal of Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist,” even though her Na’vi avatar looked distractingly bizarre when superimposed with Weaver’s face. Zoe Saldana gets the next-best performance as Neytiri because she shows the most range, but it’s still a clichéd role. Finally, Sam Worthington should never receive another leading actor role in a major Hollywood film. His generic acting talents and inability to mask his Australian accent make him a bafflingly poor choice. Hollywood, please stop casting him.
The crowd-pleasing action works. This final epic battle rivals the “Lord of the Rings” films in fantasy combat visuals and it will hold your interest once the bullets and arrows begin to fly.
I have no qualms with the film as a mainstream Hollywood spectacle, I simply wish it had catered less towards the teenage anime and video game crowd with its remedial concept and attempted a more original, challenging one to compliment its rich alien-world design and technical achievements. Although I won’t see it again in the theater, I won’t mind watching it months from now on a great home theater system to marvel at the bright colors and shiny things. After all, these aspects are what “Avatar” will surely win multiple Oscars for.
Ultimately, “Avatar” makes me wish that Cameron had burned all this effort on a direct sequel to his 1986 masterpiece “Aliens,” which I consider the finest sci-fi/action movie of all time.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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