Andy Bockelman: ‘Avatar’ has stunning visual flair, but story is colorless
December 29, 2009
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 160 minutes
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver
Great, soaring extraterrestrial pterodactyls.
Spores of intergalactic trees that look like dandelion seeds.
There are plenty of recognizable components in the alien world of "Avatar," and the movie's storyline is at the top of the list.
By 2154, Earth has become almost uninhabitable.
But that hasn't stopped the people of the planet from seeking out enterprise elsewhere, most notably on Pandora, the moon of the planet Polyphemus. Mining operations have been slow because of the rebelling natives, the Na'vi — blue-skinned, tailed, 9-foot-tall warriors whose attachment to their natural surroundings has gotten in the way of Earth's business on their world.
Among those ready to reach out to the Na'vi is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine functioning as a replacement for his late twin brother, a scientist working on a special project before his death. The Avatar Program allows for humans to mix their DNA with a Na'vi body and control it through a technological mind-link.
Jake's newfound use of his legs turns around when he is assigned by his superior (Stephen Lang) to infiltrate the Omaticaya clan of the Na'vi and negotiate terms for their relocation. But under the tutelage of a member (Zoë Saldaña) of the race, Jake has second thoughts about betraying them.
Worthington is pretty standard in his position as a man given a second chance, though, to be fair, he doesn't have the best repartee to recite. After all, it's not the actor's fault that one of the first phrases he speaks while in avatar form is the eloquent thought, "This is great."
Sigourney Weaver outdoes him in avatar and human bodies correspondingly as crusading botanist Grace Augustine, whose interests in the Na'vi are educational and diplomatic, rather than exploitative.
The shining star of the tale is Saldaña, who is rendered gloriously real through motion capture technology as Neytiri, a soulful Na'vi woman who just happens to be the daughter of the chieftain (Wes Studi) and begrudges the interloping intruders for raping Pandora's environment and pushing their language and social customs on her people.
The villains are virtually unwatchable, as Lang is downright ridiculous as Col. Miles Quaritch, who seems to view genocide as a hobby. Giovanni Ribisi is just as laughable as bottom line businessman Parker Selfridge — who you know is a corporate drone because he putts golf balls into his coffee mug in his office, just like every executive who ever lived — who is obsessed with getting his hands on the mineral lode blocked by the Na'vi, that of unobtainium.
For those familiar with the term "MacGuffin," now would be the appropriate time to roll your eyes.
In every great film — particularly those in the fantasy genre — there is a moment when the audience is completely engulfed within the world created on the screen. In this movie, that instant promises to come numerous times but never follows through.
Unlike the universes created in enduring features like "The Wizard of Oz" or "Star Wars," there is never any doubt that we are merely sitting in a theater watching a motion picture rather than making the leap into the story itself.
We may as well be Jake in his mind-link pod rather than following his Na'vi alter ego.
This wouldn't be as much of a drawback if the film's promotional campaign hadn't spent months loudly heralding the coming of a new age of cinema.
Writer/director James Cameron's first feature since "Titanic" has an extraordinary visual design, with the peoples and the domestic menagerie of Pandora utter joys to behold in terms of fully conceptualized computer generated imagery.
Cameron knows what he's doing in creating a treasure trove of beings to catch the eye, but the problem is that nearly every scene involving characters from Earth is so rudimentary and time-consuming that it takes away from the wonder of the Na'vi and their world. When the two come together for battle scenes, it's an astonishing sight to behold but goes on too long.
A scattershot, preachy tone about the dangers of suppressing other cultures — particularly in a parallel to the treatment of Native Americans — further reminds us how depressing it is that the aliens of this adventure look and act more authentic than the human beings who persecute them.
Make no mistake, "Avatar" is a must-see movie for its fully fleshed out vision of top-of-the-crop effects.
As for whether this will become the current generation's defining film, hopefully it's not too much to say that we can do better in what we choose to immortalize through our patronage. It's a perfectly enjoyable popcorn flick, but contrary to every ad you may have seen, this is most definitely not the pinnacle of the art of filmmaking.