© 20th Century Fox
Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic former Marine, is brought in to “pilot” a biological avatar and infiltrate the alien Na’vi.
This must-see escapist fantasy rejoices in magic, mayhem and story.
reviewed by Mark Burns
Giant, blue, dragon-riding Indians fight to save their bioluminescent planet from mercenary commando space cowboys in this stunning sci-fi fantasy.
Pandora is a lush forest moon like Endor, only groovier orbiting a blue gas-giant planet. Its native Na’vi people are riled as an Earth-based corporation craters their home in search of unobtainium, the most precious substance known to man. Crack mercs are trying to bully the Na’vi into submission when Jake, (Sam Worthington: Terminator Salvation), a paraplegic former Marine, is brought in to “pilot” a biological avatar and infiltrate a local clan for intel. The good Marine goes native, however, with help from huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana: Star Trek). So when the mercs step up the aggression, he takes up the fight as fated hero to save the Na’vi homeworld.
Avatar is a resurfacing for director James Cameron. The auteur disappeared under the waves with 1997’s Titanic, embarking on a series of deep-sea explorations and documentaries. His return to Hollywood’s big screen is a refreshed attempt at spectacle as he strives to push computer animation and 3D filmmaking to the next level.
The guy weaves a good tale while he’s at it.
The woven pattern is familiar. Cameron might have titled his project The Last Samurai Dances with Wolves. But there’s ample meat on this formula’s bones. Smart tension keeps the film taut as Jake is caught between the camps of biologist/anthropologist Grace (Sigourney Weaver, recapturing her Gorillas in the Mist vibe) and warmongering Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang: The Men Who Stare at Goats). Naked avarice, aggression and racism power the corporation’s bid for colonial domination, setting good and evil in stark contrast.
Jake’s narration guides much of the film, neatly evolving from hard-boiled bluntness to wiser reflection as he immerses ever deeper into his avatar role. The telling is patiently wrought and evenly paced, helped along by quick action, deep character (including Cameron’s trademark strong women) and rich setting.
It’s the setting that really makes the sell. Pandora is Gaia theory meets neuroscience meets botany, a glowing fantasyland that has almost a video game feel. Fans of the Final Fantasy game series may especially appreciate the verve, particularly as relates to an inspired bestiary populated by dragon-like banshees, elephant-sized hammerhead rhinos with jet-intake nostrils and luminous, helicoptering lizards. The world is realized in crisply realistic computer animation blended with tangible set pieces to believable effect. The creative team at work here the same guys who brought Gollum to life deliver intricate realism to the Na’vi without the creep, creating fine virtual performances that sync naturally with live elements.
Action, too, is no slouch as Cameron serves up a buffet of fireballs, jungle chase, winged firepower, archery, beast wrangling and high-altitude acrobatics. Quaritch is a caricature of raw aggression riding in on a gunship bristling with a ridiculous array guns and missiles, setting himself up as a delicious force for mayhem. There’s a knife-fight sequence in a militarized power suit that’s just fun.
The 3D tech at work here is certainly better than the old-school stuff. There’s depth in every shot rather than just the odd gag, and it’s used to swell effect in action sequences. Dimension is sharper and the sunshade-style 3D glasses fit easily over prescription eyewear. That said, the view is a bit disorienting, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust, and the three-hour flick did yield mild eyestrain. A couple of moviegoers commented generally that next time they’d try the 2D experience.
Still, there will be a next time. Avatar is a rich piece of escapist fantasy that rejoices in its magic and mayhem without abandoning the more peaceful nuances of a carefully faceted story. Count this as a must-see.
Great sci-fi • PG-13 • 162 mins.