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Avatar

Directed by James Cameron with Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang, 163 minutes, PG-13, color, 2009

DVD cover of Avatar

Cover of DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

The most expensive movie ever made to date, Avatar was a much anticipated major "event" because of its presentation in 3D and the ballyhooed "king of the world" fame of its director, James Cameron, whose other major films include Titanic, Aliens, Terminator 2 (see The City Review article), and True Lies.

The movie has many silly characters lifted almost in total from other films such as the obnoxious head of the mining company operations and the gung-ho female fighter pilot. Indeed, much of the movie is juvenile in its premises and preposterous in its invented posthistoric animals.

There is no denying, however, that parts of the movie are magical, not so much in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz (see The City Review) but in the mesmerizing flying sequences through "islands in the sky" and, more importantly, in the romance of the two leading characters, Jake Sully, a disabled human being who becomes an avatar in the world of the Na'Vi, and Neytiri, a very heroic Na'Vi female.

The Na'Vi people have large, pointed ears, striped blue skin, very long tails, yellow eyes, very tall and very athletic bodies and squashed noses. They act a bit like 19th Century American Indians, riding horses and carrying their bows and arrows.

The Americans, on the other hand, are an unattractive lot with huge iron suits of armor that are a combination of Alien's metal and hydraulic outfits and Robocop, the 1987 movie with Peter Weller, both true "heavy metal" studs.

While the special effects are impressive and it is easy to see where Cameron spent his money, it is the motion-capture computer realizations of the Na'Vi that is truly spectacular even if not original to this movie. One can easily be "turned on" by the gracefulness of the Na'Vi and Neytiri is a fabulous, sexy, and memorable heroine/amazon.

The plot and dialogue are not terribly original but the technical achievement is very impressive, especially some of the non-human inhabitants of Pandora, the moon where the mining takes place in 2154. The jelly-fish-like diadems are lovely and the brightly-colored, parrot-like dragons are most impressive. The hammerhead-like lizards are very nasty and the mean, hungry dogs are mean.

"Quest for Fire" invented a new language for its prehistoric humanoids and placed them in a very beautiful landscape. Stanley Kubrick's monkeys and pre-humans in 2001 (see The City Review article) were very convincing. The goofy monsters populating a bar were the best thing in the sophmoric Star Wars movies. The crab-like baby monsters and slimy black adult monsters of Ridley Scott's Alien (see The City Review article) in 1979 have no horrific peers. The worlds of King Kong, especially the one created by Peter Jackson, are appropriately filled with wonder and terror.

What makes Avatar "special," then, is not its environmentally conscious and anti-war plot and its alignment with the maligned Na'Vi, but the mystique and allure of the title - avatar - and its sophisticated notion of a computerized "stand-in"/kindred spirit/thought-action projection, and the thoroughly intriguing and interesting personalities and aesthetics of the Na'Vi themselves. They are likable and admirable, agile and heroic, and usually gentle. There is a moment, however, when Neytiri gets angry and snarls a snarl that would frighten any lion.

As the male lead, Sam Worthington is very, very bland and uninteresting in his human form and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge is swarmier and sleazier and more disgusting than Paul Reiser ever was in Alien 3. Stephen Lang, however, is a beguiling, menacing and very believable villain as Colonel MilesQuaritch, the military leader of the mining expedition who sends Jake Sully's avatar into Pandora to infiltrate the Na'Vi and convince them not to oppose the mining operation that intends to destroy their beloved tree to obtain a previous mineral, which the movie calls unobtanium in a throw-away attempt at humor. Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine has aged considerably here and her role is very clearcut.

As awesome as the computer-created personalities and landscapes of Avatar are, they cannot compare with the regenerative capabilities of Cameron's Terminator 2.

Avatar is definitely worth seeing for the Na'Vi and their flying dragons and dramatic sky-islands, but it is not the earth-shaking revolution its advertising led some to believe. If a "director's cut" could be made that eliminated the slow beginning and the stupidity of the Rimisi character and just "cut to the chase" so-to-speak it would be a fine classic.

This film ranks 99th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the 500 Best Sound Films.

The film is available now as a regular DVD and as a blue-ray DVD, but not yet as a blue-ray 3D DVD. You can order the regular DVD from Amazon.com for 47 percent off its $29.95 list price by clicking here.

The film is ranked 76th in the Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 films as of April 26, 2010

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