Rated PG-13 /162 min.
Filmmaker James Cameron (Aliens, the first two Terminator movies, The Abyss) committed one of the all-time greatest vanishing acts when, after winning a boatload of awards for Titanic, still the top-grossing movie of all time, he didn’t direct another fictional film for more than a decade. After years of dabbling in television and documentaries, here he is, 12 years later, with a new epic, nearly three hours long and costing almost $300 million dollars. It’s the biggest gamble in a career defined by gambles. And it pays off—sort of.
Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who, in the distant future, is sent to the planet Pandora, where he must infiltrate the Na‘avi, a native tribal alien race, and take the valuable land where they live. In order to be one of them, he has his mind fused with an Avatar, a giant alien body that allows him to immerse himself in extraterrestrial jungle life.
Take away the sci-fi angle and you have The Last Samurai, so forget originality. The cheesy dialogue is also indefensible. It’s the year 2154, but humans still give fist bumps and make corny jokes that aren’t even topical now. Still, we don’t go to Cameron movies for great screenwriting. We go for spectacle, and this mega-movie delivers it like a three-story birthday cake. Years in the making and boasting CGI characters, motion capture performances and digital landscapes light years ahead of the competition, the film, if nothing else, is very, very cool, with something spectacular, richly colorful and strange yet vividly life-like to gaze at in every scene.
The 3-D technology created for the film wants to pull you in and give you a depth-of-field sensation not unlike what Jake is experiencing as an Avatar. The audience experience isn’t quite that groundbreaking, but the vines, insects, fire and foliage that comes at you is indeed wow-worthy.
This isn’t Cameron’s best by a long shot: it’s too long (even with a rushed set-up), doesn’t connect emotionally until near the final scene and Worthington, whether in the flesh or as a CGI-rendered Na‘avi, is underwhelming.
Stephen Lang steals the film as the ultimate movie badass, Cameron alum Sigourney Weaver provides some needed sass as a brilliant scientist and Zoe Saldana gives the most effective of the CGI-rendered performance. Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi, cast as a heartless bureaucrat, has the thankless job of giving lots of expository dialogue and flogging the heavy-handed historical and environmental allegory.
Avatar is essentially a big, lavish B-movie with a kitchen sink climax that feels like pieces of every Star Wars film melded together, followed by a Leona Lewis song that strives very hard to sink Celine Dion’s cloying Titanic ballad once and for all. If that’s the film’s only success, it will have been worth it. Barry Wurst II, MauiTime