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Thursday, December 17, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW
Avatar

All That Glitters Is Beautiful, But It Isn't Gold


Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, a member of the Na'vi, who come under attack on Pandora from U.S. military might in James Cameron's "Avatar", which opens tonight across North America at midnight screenings.    WETA

By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Thursday, December 17, 2009

A gargantuan, gleaming bit of three-hour eye candy, "Avatar" is surely the best piece of celluloid you've ever laid eyes on.  James Cameron must be saluted (and awarded) for a grand and revolutionary achievement in filmmaking, and it is a tribute to his extreme hard work over a 20 year-period that worldwide audiences will marvel at the world he has devised in 3D and IMAX 3D (2Ders need not apply).

The story, however, of "Avatar" (not "Ishtar"?), which opens tonight across North America in special midnight screenings, is that there's no story to speak of, other than a muscular spectacle of incandescent blue brilliance.  Fireworks displays on the 4th of July pale in comparison.  But the $64,000 question begs asking: when the half-billion dollar pyrotechnics are stripped down, what remains?

Mr. Cameron, whose visual acumen is virtually unparalleled on such epic action voyages ("Aliens", "The Abyss", "T2", "Titanic") sets his story on the faraway Atlantis-like island of Pandora, where the indigenous Na'vi reside.  Many of the Na'vi, blue-colored beings, look like a proxy for Africans or Aborigines or Native Americans, some of whom profligate the same stereotypical behavior the racially offensive "District 9" embraced and "The Princess And The Frog" wisely skated past.

Meanwhile, in our "story" already in progress, the U.S. military's scientists have created avatars, hosts for human inhabitants that replicate the Na'vi.  Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, "Terminator Salvation"), a physically disabled U.S. marine selected to inhabit an avatar for a fact-finding mission on Pandora after his twin brother dies.  Before too long though, you have a military maniac, say, a Donald Rumsfeld on steroids (Stephen Lang, muscled to the max), turning up his apocalyptic napalm antenna to Code Red and ordering an all-out war on the Na'vi.  The verisimilitude to Iraq is evident: a government contractor (Giovanni Ribisi) wants all the resources the Na'vi have, and by goodness, he wants it all, pronto. 

Mr. Cameron's films have forever centered on a notion of "otherness" and xenophobia that can't be ignored ("Aliens", "The Abyss", "T2" and even "Titanic" - the fear of the poor co-mingling with, if not stealing from, the rich.)  With "Avatar" this primal theme continues with a hair-trigger-impulsive Jake and an amped-up war machinery against the not-quite blue-man-group nation.

Then there's political expediency via one of the most despicable Hollywood movie icons of all: the noblesse oblige of the white man who, having been caught between two worlds, helps the natives savaged by members of his own group while professing to lead (or co-lead) those attacked natives in a battle against his own kinsmen.  Pick a movie ("Dances With Wolves", "The Last Samurai", "District 9" to name a recent few) and you'll find that the noble savage has a comfortable place on the Tinseltown shelf, trotted out in a movie "when the moment is right", as in a Cialis erectile dysfunction TV commercial.

And in the famed noble savage department, especially in the third act, things go from bad to worse, with patronizing gestures to the Na'vi.  The stunningly gorgeous imagery of "Avatar" can't rescue or camouflage the film's vacuous and bloated narrative, which grows absurd beyond compare. 

Zoe Saldana ("Star Trek") plays Neytiri, the Na'vi woman who educates Jake about her people.  While Mr. Cameron is known for his tough, single-minded women warrior characters (Sigourney "Aliens" Weaver is back as a scientist here), his Achilles heel has consistently been his screenplays.  This one is littered with poor, shallow dialogue and some suspect sequences.

Having said all of this, I highly recommend that everyone see "Avatar" as an event, as an opportunity to witness a seminal cinematic achievement, but I do not recommend the film.  Believe me, this statement makes sense, even if a lot of the plot that Mr. Cameron decorates the screen with does not.

With: Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder (voice), Laz Alonso (voice), Wes Studi (voice).

"Avatar" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.  The film's running time is two hours and 42 minutes.  In English with some subtitles.

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Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here.

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