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There’s a great movie in which humans try to drive an alien race out of their homes. They first go about it strategically, learning what the aliens like and bribing them. Then they try force, flat-out killing the creatures and destroying their turf. When one human discovers that aliens are people, too, the battle turns personal, and allegiances are tested.
That movie is District 9.
The gist of that plot also happens to apply to Avatar, James Cameron’s ridiculously hyped, reportedly $300-million-plus 3-D project whose pre-release buzz and subsequent drooling inarguably befit a King of the World. The film is set in 2154 and mostly takes place on a completely CG world called Pandora. The planet is inhabited by the Na’vi, a race of reed-thin 9-to-10-foot-tall beings who look like blue, abused Stretch Armstrongs. It’s also rich in something called Unobtainium, a valuable resource that Earthlings want to get their grubby live-action hands on. But humans can’t breathe Pandoran air, and the Na’vi aren’t exactly welcoming to strangers. So a group of scientists, militants, and garden-variety evil types must get avatar’d in order to ingratiate themselves with the Na’vi and, in the best-case scenario, convince them to move elsewhere.
Cameron, who also wrote the script, doesn’t really bother the audience with these details, instead dropping you into an already-in-progress plot with broadly sketched characters: There’s Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine whose brother was killed before attempting the Pandora mission. There’s Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez), the former a badass boss and the latter a badass pilot. And orchestrating things are Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker, a corporate type who barks nerdisms, and Stephen Lang’s Miles Quaritch, a colonel who barks Bush-isms such as “shock and awe” and is so coolly evil he sips at a beverage throughout an air raid.
Right from the beginning, Avatar’s narrative is a loop of Jake and others going to Pandora, learning about the Na’vi, returning to their base, repeat. When the Marine gets stuck on the planet overnight, he becomes the mission’s VIP, fighting the vicious, unfamiliar flora and fauna and cozying up to Neytiri (Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana), who saves him from an animal attack. It’s a love-hate thing on her part, but she gets her family and community to spare the stranger by stressing that he’s a well-meaning “warrior” who wants to learn their customs. Soon, he’s speaking their language (one exhaustively invented for the film), swinging from vines, and flying their pterodactyl-like animals, with which he first must bond by commingling the tentacles at the end of his ponytail with those at the end of the creature’s real tail.
Perhaps Cameron kept the story simple in order to keep viewers’ attention where he wants it—on, duh, the effects. The film was more than 10 years in the making, and the director actually invented his own cameras to create this digital world, borrowing extensively from his post-Titanic deep-sea escapades to bring Pandora to life: The planet’s lush green milieu bursts with brightly colored or iridescent plants and insects that sway with grace, with animals that are scaly, toothy, and ferocious.
If this is the extent of your knowledge going into Avatar, you’ll probably think, “Hmm, hundreds of millions of dollars is kinda a lot for 3-D snowflakes.” But if you know that these 3-D flakes were conjured in a completely CG environment—that this entire world was borne of Cameron’s imagination—the result is significantly more impressive. Na’vi, Worthington, Saldana, and the rest of the cast are believably expressive, their yellow eyes teeming with the kind of life and emotion Robert Zemeckis has repeatedly failed to capture. The 3-D isn’t overdone, either, lending depth to the images instead of being an in-your-face gimmick.
And yet. As realistic as Pandora is, that plot remains meager, allowing you to spend the bulk of the film’s running time ruminating on the technology. It’s imaginative, but not transportive. Overuse of a score that screams “majestic!” is also a corny distraction, overselling images of fog-covered mountains and hundreds of Na’vi holding hands and circling in worship. And for all the pluses of the 3-D visuals, the glasses can’t help but dim the scenery somewhat—take them off for a few seconds and see how much more intensely the colors pop.
Adjectives such as “beautiful” and “breathtaking” have been thrown at Avatar, and they’re apt. But I’ll throw in a third B: Boring. Neytiri tells Jake that she saved him because he has a “strong heart,” but the film has none. When you need to spend more time reading about a movie’s construction than watching the result, that’s a fail no matter how wondrous the visuals. The inevitable making-of doc, however? I’d wager that will be a can’t-miss.