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Ten Word or Less Review:  Behold Avatar!  Eh.

So much will be written about James Cameron’s “Avatar”, and so much already has, but I feel the following two observations will summarize the whole experience when all is said and done.  First, it is without question one of the penultimate technological achievements in modern cinema.  Cameron has leapfrogged his contemporaries and effectively erased the last lines separating real life and Hollywood fantasy.  Robert Zemekis is probably eating his own arm with envy.  Second, “Avatar” is without question saddled with an annoyingly insubstantial and trite story that the director himself doesn’t want to seem to bother with at times.  For all the visual splendor, and there’s a lot of splendor, it’s often difficult to sidestep the fact that Cameron is making little more than a run of the mill exercise where the entirely good noble savages are under threat from entirely bad corporate guys and their entirely bad military, all of whom seethe with bigotry and ignorance.  In short, it’s a movie ripe with innovation, and also completely lacking it.

Out of left field, mega-budget movie staple Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, a paralyzed marine who finds himself shipped off to the savage planet of Pandora.  Scully’s twin brother was a scientist who was in the process of becoming a Na’vi avatar, a fake alien body in which he would download his mind so as to walk amongst the hostile natives.  After Jake’s brother is killed, he becomes the only person who can successfully utilize his brother’s avatar body.  His mission, to infiltrate the natives of Pandora and convince them to make way for the military onslaught that lies in wait for them should they not relocate.  The Na’vi live right on top of a much desired mineral that the visiting Earthlings want and taking no for an answer is not an option.  Of course, once Jake gets begrudgingly accepted by the Na’vi, the whole “Dances with Wolves” comparisons kick in and the film’s perfunctory story is set in motion.

Utilizing a conventional plot or story isn’t necessarily a crippling thing to a movie.  Many a solid film is built upon familiar structures and archetypes that any audience member will be wise to.  One merely need find intriguing and worth while ways to tell what essentially the same old story.  What’s so consistently dispiriting about “Avatar” is how little it tries to break new ground outside of its endless visual palette.  It’s an experience ripe with one resplendent looking scene after another, but so many of these scenes feel in service of something so hopelessly predictable, and not written with much spark, that as large pieces of “Avatar” leap off the screen, they quickly land flat on their face.  Cameron skips along at a brisk pace which keeps the movie from becoming plodding, but one has to wonder what his real motivations were for dashing along so swiftly.  Was it because he didn’t want to stretch his runtime, or did he not want the audience to realize how truly mechanical and clumsy much of his film is?  Strip away the jaw dropping visuals and there really is nothing left of note.  But then, there are those jaw dropping visuals.

There is never once an unconvincing shot in “Avatar.”  Its digital creations feel not only entirely real at every turn but are gorgeous to boot.  Where as so many CGI creations of movies past have been cursed with the air of being weightless, having soulless eyes or not quite matching the living actor or prop standing next to it, everything on Pandora feels like it’s a beautiful, living, breathing creature.  What sells the Na’vi visually is their eyes and skin.  So many digital characters have been chalked up as failure because nothing lives behind their eyes, or they look as if they’re the spawn of leather people.  Cameron and his army of geeks have finally solved these riddles.  The Na’vi look at others and themselves with complete believability. They’ve successfully given a digital creature a convincing soul.  Their skin textures are completely flesh like, dodging that cursed sensation that they’ve been created out of airline luggage.  Also, the performance of the actor genuinely comes through the technology, helping create this life like effect.  If Worthington and Zoe Saldana weren’t shoe horned into such run-of-the-mill parts, Saldana playing alien Pochahontas, the effect would be truly stunning.  But this run-of-the-mill syndrome seeps deep.

The Na’vi are not so much an alien race than just stereotypical Native Americans turned tall, blue and given a tail.  His choice to turn his groundbreaking alien species into tree hugging, bow and arrow users who ride horses and love their planet tells me that all of Cameron’s imagination and resources went into how these creatures look, while nothing was invested how they act.  In fact, a lot of “Avatar” and its creatures have this Earth’s second cousin syndrome.  Cameron has successfully built a planet from the ground up, but it doesn’t feel far enough removed from our own.  The majority of his creatures and life forms are simply reconstituted from Earth’s own zoological output which robs “Pandora” of being a truly alien place.  Sure, there are floating mountains and people fly dragons, but Pandora, for all the effort that went into it, is a place meant to rock our eyes sockets and not our minds.  For Cameron’s next planet building effort, one might suggest he construct a place that feels more like a truly alien planet and less like a South American jungle on steroids.

All bitching and moaning aside “Avatar” does eventually succeed on a plain of visceral action.  Despite his decade plus of sitting on the directorial sidelines, Cameron still has action chops in spades, mercifully avoiding the rust which killed George Lucas and his Star Wars prequels.  While his small scenes with actors, real or digital, feel haphazard and uneven, when he unleashes his digital might, staging jungle chase scenes, flying through the environment on dragon back or unleashing an army of flying vehicles on the poor natives, he’s completely at ease blowing us away.  “Avatar’s” final act consists of some stunning set pieces which overwhelm any viewer, even an extremely jaded one such as myself.  There’s virtually no end to all the digital strength and it almost makes up for the tiresome and rudimentary nature of the rest of the film.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang score the film’s only genuine performance marks.  Both are old pros who don’t seem able to phone things in no matter how common the screenplay.  Weaver’s no bullshit tolerating scientist gives the movie a much needed off the cuff sensibility.  Lang’s bad guy is commonly bad, but effectively so.  He hates all this tree hugging, hippy crap and you can see how he relishes the branding of his huge guns. 

I may have deprived myself of some of the “Avatar” experience by skipping the 3D showing.  3D often leaves me with a headache after an hour, so considering the 160 minute runtime; I decided it would be best to save a 3D showing for later.  Seeing the film in 2D seems to amplify its faults as many other viewers seem acutely aware of the deficiencies pointed out here, but don’t seem to care.  Cameron designed “Avatar” to be a 3D experience and despite my massive reservations about it I will see it again and see how the 3D element effects its playing.  As a 2D experience it’s a deeply flawed movie that still manages to amaze in parts.  Hopefully it’s nothing more than an opening act for Cameron, a film meant to give his new technology a dry run in the hopes of utilizing it for a deeper experience later.  Should he reinvest himself in the complex characterizations which helped define his earlier work, and successfully meld it with his wonderful new toys, then there’s no end to the heights he could achieve.  Let’s hope for that next time.

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