‘Avatar’ pushes film forward
If the Discovery Channel hired an egotistical visionary to concoct an interstellar sequel to “Planet Earth,” it might look something like “Avatar.” James Cameron’s long awaited film, his first non-documentary piece since “Titanic,” takes us to a phosphorescent world so exotically colorful that it rivals the balloon palette of Pixar’s “Up.”
Call it “Planet Pandora.”
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 6 months, here’s the skinny: “Avatar” is the story of paraplegic Marine Jake Sully. He travels to a moon four light-years away, called Pandora, to join the Avatar initiative. This project has found a way to combine the genomes of humans with that of the moon’s indigenous humanoids, the Na’vi. The Avatar Program has several responsibilities, most of which fall under the category of scientific research: Humans make contact with and educate the Na’vi in the ways of humans, or what the natives call “sky people.”
If you’re searching for an allegory here, you won’t have to look far. The centuries-long plight of Native Americans is a broad undertone for “Avatar,” while its narrative is more narrowly focused on a Pocahontas-type love story. Writer/Director James Cameron is neither the first nor will he be the last to draw from these themes, though it’s encouraging to see such a high profile, effects-driven event embrace a naturalistic tone.
But this is Cameron, after all, the same director of game-changers like “Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” so you know slam bang action and unprecedented visual effects will find their way into the mix. He wisely chooses to save most of the intense scenes for the film’s climatic Battle for Pandora, an eye opening extravaganza that pits machine again nature. The preceding two hours amount to a geographical study on the Na’vi and their surrounding habitat, and boy does it satisfy.
There are animals that look like plants, plants that look like funnels, dragons that look like … well, dragons. Cameron has crafted an extraordinary ecosystem, an amalgam of his love for creature effects and a decade of work shooting the oceanic documentaries “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep.” His inspiration is clearly drawn from underwater worlds, as evident from the multi-colored organisms that populate the wonderfully radiant Pandora.
Sully, played by Sam Worthington, shares the audience’s fascination, as well as a Marine’s propensity for gung-ho exploits. He touches everything in site, quenching an almost insatiable curiosity for all the glowing, growing things the landscape has to offer. He also accepts whatever challenges come his way via Neytiri, a capable Na’vi love interest who guides him through his journey from a mere ex-grunt to an empathetic man who sees the natives for who they truly are.
Fortunately, the least convincing parts of prior motion-capture excursions like “The Polar Express” — facial expressions — has been fixed. Thanks to what the effects team calls Emotion Capture, these blue-skinned creatures live and breathe convincingly. It took Weta Workshop, Industrial Light and Magic, and Lightstorm Entertainment, three of the biggest special effects houses in cinema, to finish the film’s effects on time, and the work truly paid off. The Na’vi’s eyes are especially wondrous, rising above the problem of the Uncanny Valley to give souls to their CG-created race. At moments they appear to be actors merely wearing makeup, a testament to how organic it all feels.
For all its fantastic effects work, “Avatar” features some stellar acting. It might not seem obvious at first, but Zoë Saldana, as the Princess Neytiri, is the heart and soul of the film. The nature of performance capture doesn’t necessarily lend itself to acting recognition, but the technology used to render her emotions does so wondrously. Her beauty, fear and rage all come across flawlessly.
Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by stage actor Stephen Lang, makes for a fascinating villain. With his muscular physique and embrace of militaristic tech, he stands for all the Na’vi fight against. And it makes for great B-movie action.
“Avatar” is a literally an out-of-this-world experience that might end up being as redefining for our generation as “The Wizard of Oz” and “King Kong” have been for others. Its plot may be a rehash of prior themes, but that can be said about any film from “Star Wars” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It is only fitting that, at the end of a decade that began with the reintegration of fantasy into the pop consciousness of cinephiles, one of the most ambitiously fantastical excursions of the last 30 years would emerge. When the film is over and the credits roll, “Avatar” is just plain fun to watch.
“Avatar” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and language. Now playing in IMAX 3D, RealD-3D, and 2D.