Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The highly touted and long anticipated "Avatar" (*** out of ****) from writer & director James Cameron of "Titanic" fame qualifies as a predictable but entertaining sci-fi culture clash between the aggressive, technology-driven human race and a primitive, agrarian-fueled alien society. Mankind has shipped in mind-boggling machinery to plunder the planet of a mineral called Unobtanium worth an astronomical fortune. The complication is an entire race of Smurf-colored, Zulu-tall, humanoid aliens called the Na'vi worships a gigantic tree rooted in the same soil as the priceless minerals.

Basically, "Avatar" pits tree-huggers against tree-haters. Indeed, the story is as venerable as any cavalry western about the white hero who joins a clueless Indian tribe living atop a hopelessly rich gold strike. Although he acts as a go-between, the hero betrays his own kind and sides with the Indians to preserve the land rather than let his own people rape it. Unfortunately, Cameron generates minimal emotion from this "Dances with Wolves" melodrama. More problematic from the standpoint of credibility is the hybrid storyline. "Avatar" alternates, albeit it smoothly, between being a feature-length cartoon like “FernGully, The Last Rainforest” and a Big Dumb "Matrix" Action Movie stocked with stereotypes. Historically, "Avatar" pays tribute to the legendary Pocahontas and Captain John Smith romance.

"Avatar" takes place in the year 2145, on the distant planet of Pandora, after mankind has depleted all its natural resources on Earth. No, this has nothing to do with the terrible sci-fi thriller "Pandorum" that starred Dennis Quaid. "Avatar" and "Pandorum" are two entirely separate sci-fi sagas. After his intellectually-gifted twin-brother is shot and killed by a mugger, Jack Scully--who is paralyzed from the waist down--is selected to replace him for a top-secret mission. A former Marine, Jake (Sam Worthington of "Terminator: Salvation") is shipped off to distant Pandora to resolve tensions with the native Na'vi people so his fellow earthlings can excavate the Unobtanium. Jake sprawls out in a cylindrical chamber and projects his consciousness into his flesh & blood avatar to control it. The avatar is a genetically bred replica of Pandora's indigenous Na'vi tribe. This avatar includes both human and Na'vi genetic material. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang of "Tombstone") commands the Earth project to extract the Unobtanium and he amounts to a one-dimensional "Rambo" villain. Meaning, he won't be easy to kill. Stephen Lang makes a terrific villain who wants to see this peaceful but noble people destroyed.

Colonel Quaritch considers biologist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver of "Aliens") a complete nuisance, but corporate representative Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi of "The Mod Squad") lets Grace perform her diplomatic initiative to gain the trust and cooperation of the Na'vi. Secretly, Quaritch has cut a deal with Jake. If Jake can deliver the intelligence about the Na'vi that Quaritch needs, then he will have the medical gurus restore the use of Jake's legs. Meanwhile, Grace treats Jake with nothing but contempt. She refers to him as a "Jarhead dropout." Jake is separated from Grace and company during a helicopter ride into the jungle and he has to fend for himself in the wild. Neytiri nearly kills Jake when she encounters him at first, but something happens that she has rarely seen in nature and she spares Jake his life.

Meanwhile, the wise head of the Na'vi clan, Neytiri's father (Wesley Studi of "Last of the Mohicans") orders her to train Jake, in his avatar form about their ways so they can better study him. Naturally, Jake falls in love with a maiden warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana of "Star Trek") and she introduces Jake to the jungle and its dangers. Neytiri seems more like an Environmentalist version of "Mulan" and she is no slouch when she has to shoot arrows. Inevitably, as conventions dictate, the heroine falls in love with the hero and they become inseparable. Along the way, Jake learns how to use his tail to ride a giant sky lizard and later an even bigger sky lizard.

According to Hindu mythology, an avatar is a deity who takes human form and descended to earth. An avatar in computer parlance is an icon that a person adopts for use in virtual reality or cyberspace. In "Avatar," the avatar is a prefabricated body controlled by brain waves emitted by a human who functions as the body's driver. Cameron spends most of the first half-hour shoving exposition down our throats because he has to bring us up to speed on a brave new universe and its colorful but mysterious people. Of course, the special effects are awesome, but you need not see "Avatar" in 3-D because it refrains from exploiting the technology the way most 3-D movies do. In other words, rarely does anything come flying out at you. The planet of Pandora with its floating mountains and luminous fauna is a treat for the eye. Pandora looks like an underwater planet without water, and the beasts that lurk in its lush jungle vaguely resemble our prehistoric dinosaurs.

Nevertheless, despite its imposing 160-minute running time, Cameron maintains sufficient momentum to see things through to the kick-butt finale between good and evil. Some of the technology the avaricious earthlings import to the Pandora may remind you of the second "Alien" movie, "Aliens," which was helmed by Cameron. Of course, "Gamer" and "Surrogates" beat Cameron to the punch with their stories about an avatar-oriented society. The visual spectacle and splendor of "Avatar" with its floating mountains and its "Black Hawk Down" aerial sequences will hold your attention. Again, the Zulu Smurfs with Submariner ears and "Lion King" snouts never conjure up a tenth of the emotional charisma of a live-action character. In this respect, Cameron has embraced the performance capture technology espoused by Robert Zemeckis in his last three films. In other words, the sentiment is not sticky enough because they lack depth as characters.