Movie Review: Avatar (PG-13)


It’s Not Easy Being Blue

Epic “Avatar” sure to be a hit.

By Roxana Hadadi

James Cameron really, really wants “Avatar” to be an epic. But the groundbreaking director draws from so many different films and uses such a heavy-handed approach that the much-hyped film, while amazing to look at, suffers under the expectedness of its plot.

For years, Cameron – who aside from directing the record-making blockbuster “Titanic” also blew minds in the ‘80s with “Aliens,” “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – has talked about “Avatar,” which he first dreamed up in 1994 and wanted to begin working on as soon as “Titanic” wrapped in 1996. But the project languished for 10 years while Cameron kept refining the script and developing better technology to use for the film, like a virtual camera, a device that allows the director to have a better grasp of the digital aspects of the film and how they interact. And when the film debuted at Comic-Con earlier this year, Cameron was lauded by techies who had never seen a film’s CGI animation look that realistic.

In those ways, Cameron succeeds with “Avatar” – the film’s cinematography is simply amazing. The scenes of lush Pandora, a planet that humans are invading for its natural resources, are expansive and beautiful, full of bizarre, graceful animals and colorful, fluorescent flowers. But the film’s plot doesn’t quite live up to Cameron’s images: Though it’s at times empathetic and thrilling, it’s also utterly unsurprising. Any parent who has seen dramas like “Dances with Wolves” or “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” or child who watches Disney flicks like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas” will be unmoved by the character development, and though it’s a feast for the eyes and doesn’t have anything too offensive for tweens or older, it’s not an instant classic.

The film starts off by jetting viewers into A.D. 2154 and introducing protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, “Terminator Salvation”), a former Marine who was paralyzed from the waist down on Earth and is tapped into taking part in the Avatar program because his twin brother, who was already chosen for the project, unexpectedly dies. Because their genetic material is the same, Jake is able to take his place as the driver of an Avatar hybrid, genetically bred with both human DNA and that of the planet’s native race, the Na’vi (10-foot-tall blue humanoids who have nerve endings in their hair that can allow them to connect to the planet’s creatures and trees.) As a driver, Jake’s mind is transferred into the Na’vi body, which the project uses to canvas the planet and learn more about its infrastructure and culture.

But once he begins using the Avatar, Jake is caught between Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”), who wants him to use his new Na’vi body (in which he can again use his legs) to spy on the natives and learn how to crush them, and Dr. Grace Austen (former “Alien” protagonist Sigourney Weaver), a botanist in charge of mentoring Jake who often clashes with the Marines and the businessmen in charge of the project. And more complications arise when Jake grows close to Neytiri (an entirely digital Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek”), a princess and warrior of the Omaticaya tribe, and begins to empathize with the Na’vi people and appreciate their way of life.

If you’ve seen “Fern Gully,” you can probably guess what happens next. But the film, while it follows a much-traveled trek and has lots of trite dialogue (which includes phrases like “fresh start on a new world,” “one life ends, another begins” and “fighting for freedom”), does have moments that should please both parents and children alike: Because it’s in 3D, the film’s scenery especially pops, with flowers and insects blooming and floating out of the screen. And though the film’s aerial action scenes are thoroughly exciting and surprisingly blood-less (there’s no “Aliens”-like horror here), they certainly get a boost from the multi-dimensional effects.

And that’s somewhat the problem here: The effects overshadow both the film’s plot and its performances, which are mostly lacking in character development. For example, Giovanni Ribisi is decidedly flat as bureaucrat Parker Selfridge, whose bullheadedness in wanting to destroy the Na’vi merely seems like a carbon copy of the manipulative Carter Burke from “Aliens.” Worthington is solid as the film’s focal point, but his dissatisfaction with his own life is only explained through a brief narration in the beginning of the film. Lastly, Lang has little to work with as the film’s bad guy: He’s a one-dimensional jarhead with a thirst for blood, and the film does little – well, nothing – to build upon that.

But while “Avatar” doesn’t change cinema as we know it, it’s also not exorbitantly offensive – there are some curse words here or there, but nothing too egregious; there’s some Na’vi nudity, but it’s the “National Geographic” kind; and the fight scenes are intense, but not gory. You’ll walk away visually satisfied, but not mind-blown – and certainly not surprised.

Roxana Hadadi last reviewed “Planet 51.”