With Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver. Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. 162 minutes.
Although not every one of James Cameron’s films has been an artistic success, the simple fact about the King Of The World is that he doesn’t make boring movies. He’s a compelling storyteller and if he chose to be as prolific as, say, Steven Spielberg, he might have developed a much more varied body of work. Instead, his model seems to be the late Stanley Kubrick, spending years developing each project and always pushing the envelope.
Cameron is no Kubrick – he’s more from the heart than from the head – but with each movie he strives to dazzle audiences with something they’ve never seen before. In movies like “Aliens,” “Terminator 2” and “Titanic” he bypassed intellect and went right for the lizard brain. Love them or hate them, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. With AVATAR, he has done it yet again.
The plot is “Aliens” in reverse. Instead of an evil corporation using humans as fodder against monstrous aliens, this time it’s the humans who are the monsters and the gentle Na’vi – the seemingly primitive inhabitants of the planet Pandora – who are facing doom. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been recruited into a special program in which people are able to project themselves into specially grown Na’vi bodies. The humans want certain mineral rights on the planet and need the locals to get out of the way, but Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) would rather make a peaceful deal than go in guns a-blazing.
It’s essentially a battle between the corporate/military side who treat the natives as a deadly nuisance and the scientific/humanist side who argue that the Na’vi may have something to teach us. The fight over Jake’s soul – which divides its time between his war-injured human body and his dynamic Na’vi “avatar” – is the core of the film. Naturally, there’s a love interest in Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who is destined to be a tribal shaman but for now is stuck teaching Jake how to live in his Na’vi form.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the story which culminates in a battle to determine the fate of Pandora, what really makes this a cinematic landmark is its vivid creation of an alien world. Watching it in 3D the viewer becomes immersed in the flora and fauna of the world. Using a variety of technologies including computer graphics and motion capture (for the actors playing Na’vi) the result is breathtaking and beautiful. Where movies like Robert Zemeckis’s “A Christmas Carol” try to create human characters and end up creepily unreal, here the characters are supposed to seem strange and unhuman. Ironically, it makes the Na’vi seem that much more real.
Just audiences were wowed by the initial “morphing” effects in “Terminator 2,” the bringing to life of Pandora and the Na’vi is a quantum leap forward in movie special effects. It seems so real you may be tempted to book a trip there yourself. Fortunately it’s as close as the nearest theater playing “Avatar.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.