'Avatar': Cameron's Dizzying, Immersive Parable

W: Sam Worthington in 'Avatar'

Just Look At Yourself: Adventurer Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) meets the avatar he'll be inhabiting on the moon Pandora. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox

Avatar

  • Director: James Cameron
  • Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
  • Running Time: 160 minutes

Rated PG-13

With: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez

(Recommended)

Over the years, as the budget of Avatar grew otherworldly and few saw footage, Hollywood-watchers began to speculate that the new, largely computer-generated James Cameron movie would be a titanic disaster. But they shouldn't have doubted him. That trademark Cameron blend of grandiosity, jaw-dropping technology and cornball populism is back and mightier than ever. The film is dizzying, enveloping, vertigo-inducing ... I ran out of celebratory adjectives an hour into its 161 minutes.

It's also, on one level, a crock: predictable, sentimental and tin-eared. Cameron has given us a parable that's a barely disguised rewrite of American history. Native Americans — in the guise of the blue, 10-foot Na'vi people of Pandora, a moon of the vast gas planet Polyphemus — battle expertly against white capitalist imperialists who want to drive them from their ancestral lands.

The year is 2154, and a Marine named Jake Sully (played by the personable Sam Worthington) works for a military-industrial behemoth that's mining Pandora for a rare mineral called — get this — unobtainium. So he can better mingle with the natives, Jake gets his nervous system projected into a remotely controlled Na'vi body, called an avatar, and it's when he goes all tall and blue that the film goes into full-scale CGI mode.

Back in the world of flesh-and-blood actors, a prickly scientist played by Sigourney Weaver — who totally holds her own against the 10-foot-tall blue thingies — wants Jake to study Na'vi rituals. She is funded by the company but has a humanist agenda. But a selfish businessman (Giovanni Ribisi) calls the Na'vi "blue monkeys," and because their sacred land sits over a vast supply of unobtanium, he wants Jake to convince them to decamp.

Jake has to keep a video diary of his life as an avatar, and as he speaks about trying to learn the Na'vi language, Cameron cuts to his lessons with the fiery female warrior Neytiri, who under all the computer imagery is modeled on actress Zoe Saldana. It's obvious that under the spell of this lovely creature and her mystical culture, Jake will soon go native, and that Avatar will become a fantasy-land Dances with Wolves — actually, Dances with Thanators and Banshees and Direhorses and Leonopteryxs.

A panoramic image of floating mountains i i

Director James Cameron has a proven appetite for spectacle twinned with an undeniable instinct for visual composition — which often produces a stirring, immersive experience. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox
A panoramic image of floating mountains

Director James Cameron has a proven appetite for spectacle twinned with an undeniable instinct for visual composition — which often produces a stirring, immersive experience.

Twentieth Century Fox

The story would be ho-hum without the spectacle, though, and the usual problem with CGI is that it doesn't make the final perceptual leap: It's impressive, rather than immersive. But Cameron has moved the boundary posts. My press kit mentions, among other inventions he's engineered for this picture, a new "image-based facial performance capture," more intricate "head-rig" systems, a "Simul-Cam" and an "Amplified Mobility Platform Suit," or AMP.

But Cameron also has old-fashioned compositional savvy. He puts enormous things in the foreground — trees, waterfalls, creatures — and adds layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame. He creates a living ecosystem, and you and your 3-D glasses are there. The technology helps put over the movie's central idea: that this world Pandora, with its "bioluminescent" ground and foliage, is alive and infused with sacred energy.

The Na'vi have long waists, reptilian tails, golden eyes and wide noses. At first I found them an eyesore, but about halfway through, the humans began to seem puny and pallid by comparison. Jake becomes more attracted to them, too, especially toward the Amazonian Neytiri. He says that, as an avatar, he's in the true world. It's his human world that's the dream. "I don't know who I am," he confesses.

Who he is, of course, is a born-again Indian fighting for the pure and primitive against the poisonous forces of technology — with the help, of course, of state-of-the-art cinematic technology. Clods of dirt fly into our faces. Colors are more colorful, big beasts bigger and more bestial, warplanes more terrifyingly warlike. Cameron is said to be an obsessive, even a megalomaniac, but I bow to his titanic will. Now, he's king of a world he made from scratch.

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