Avatar immerses audiences in an alien ecosystem

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge CATMAN DO: Sully (Sam Worthington, left) learns the ways of the Na'vi from Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). - Weta
CATMAN DO: Sully (Sam Worthington, left) learns the ways of the Na'vi from Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).

Every 3-D movie has at least one pokey part. Even a smart, visually intriguing film such as Henry Selick's Coraline or Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf eventually goes out of its way to thrust something like a conspicuous needle or spear tip at the audience. As if the glasses weren't reminder enough, the filmmakers invariably make a big joke of the fact that you're watching a 3-D presentation. But 3-D effects seldom transcend gimmickry — they can't literally touch audiences, and they can't figuratively touch them, either.

Director James Cameron's long-awaited Avatar depicts an alien race with a fondness for bows and arrows, but keeps the 3-D jutting clichés under control. Even when bloody arrowheads stick out at your face, Cameron ensures the stunts don't distract from his otherworldly story. Avatar's innovative imagery affirms that some kinds of cinematic special effects can indeed touch audiences, if not on the emotional or intellectual level. If rendered properly, make-believe places, characters and events can have a seductive, escapist appeal, from King Kong's Skull Island to Star Wars' alien landscapes.

Avatar strives not only to reach the levels of those films, but to raise the bar for genre fantasies to come. Years of hype have held Avatar to be a paradigm-shifting, game-changing tipping point that will alter the way we watch movies until the end of recorded time, etc. Cameron faces planetary-sized expectations for his first narrative film (not counting a couple of documentaries) since Titanic became the highest-grossing film in history. Avatar probably won't be a Titanic-sized phenomenon, but the director and his army of technicians make an industrious effort to tell an old kind of story in a new kind of way.

Despite a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars for new 3-D equipment and motion-capture animation (à la Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films), Avatar seldom slows down to admire itself. Cameron sets a crisp pace and fills his frames with information. In one of the first shots, former marine corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) awakens from a cryosleep pod alongside scores of other space travelers in the zero-gravity hold of a starship. The 3-D's extreme, briefly vertiginous depth of field enhances the idea that we're in a far-flung environment.

To be specific, it's the year 2154 and we're orbiting the planet Pandora, a place of poison atmosphere, savage wildlife and the most valuable substance in the universe, puckishly called Unobtanium. (What number on the periodic table is Unobtanium, anyway?) Tensions simmer between Earth's military-industrial representatives and a research team led by the Dian Fossey-like Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) over how to handle the indigenous population, the Na'vi — a race of lithe, 10-foot-tall, stripy-blue cat people with tails, fangs and practically no clothes. The scientists can download their consciousnesses into cloned Na'vi bodies, called avatars, to study them up close. Sully just happens to be compatible with the avatar of his recently deceased twin brother.

Thus the audience learns the ropes of the 22nd century and Pandora's ecosystem through the eyes of Sully, a wheelchair-bound outsider seeking a chance to walk again. When Sully first tries out his looming alien body, the visual effects hit an awkward patch: The humans and aliens never seem natural in the same frame together, and the Na'vi take some getting used to. At times, their skulls look wider than their hips, which seems anatomically problematic. The Na'vi's enormously expressive faces and eyes help a great deal, and Weaver's avatar looks like a flashback to the actress 25 years ago (only blue).

Sully agrees to spy on the Na'vi for ruthless Col. Quaritch (intimidating Stephen Lang) and soon finds himself stranded in the jungle surrounded by vicious predators, including some particularly sleek and creepy hyena-like aliens. Na'vi princess Neytiri (voiced and physically performed by Zoe Saldana) reluctantly rescues Sully and agrees to teach him the ways of her tribe, so the audience gets to know Pandora's flora and fauna through lively training exercises. The script lays on Sully's military slang a little thick, but in the name of humanizing an alien situation: "I was a Marine, a warrior of the jarhead clan," he tells the Na'vi (who recognize the avatars as aliens).

Despite Pandora's lighter gravity, Avatar's themes can be crushingly heavy. The Na'vi commune with the planet's ecosystem by plugging their ponytails into plants or animals, so there's lots of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. You can imagine being forced to watch the sappiest scenes every Earth Day for the rest of your life. Cameron's script tries to soften the blow with Sully's tree hugger quips, but lines like "The Sky People are coming to destroy the Hometree!" are pretty unspeakable.

Cameron's script acknowledges some of its other obvious points. The plot resembles a certain Kevin Costner Oscar-winner about a military man who gradually takes the side of native tribespeople against a technologically superior expansionist force. At one point, Sully encounters a rampaging animal and when Grace tells him neither to run nor shoot it, he asks, "What do you want me to do, dance with it?" How about Dances with Titanotheres?

The film plays very much like a follow-up to Cameron's Aliens (and could conceivably take place in the same fictional universe). Giovanni Ribisi plays a white-collar worm virtually identical to Paul Reiser's role in the earlier film. The Avatar military also uses mechanical "walkers" like the ones Ripley used to fight the alien queen — only larger and more weaponized. Studio accountants concerned audiences won't turn out for a "new" film property not based on some kind of hit franchise needn't worry — Avatar's as derivative as any big blockbuster.

Avatar comes to a crescendo with an omigod-spectacular battle sequence featuring floating mountains and flying reptiles vs. gunships. In general, Avatar resembles a pulpy sci-fi book cover made flesh and blood, and the computerized landscapes have more solidity and detail than any other film. Ironically, you get so caught up in the action that you start to ignore the 3-D. Frankly, I'd rather see the film in IMAX or the sharp resolution of a 2-D projector. Avatar's whiz-bang visual achievements don't make up for the clunky plot points, but it's a great piece of film escapism that improves on George Lucas' Star Wars prequels. If you're looking for a thrilling fantasy at the cinema, Avatar is better than none.

Scroll to read more Events & Film articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.