NOTE: The DVD being released this week is a stripped-down 2D version. Later this year there will be another release with many more extras.
Writer-director-producer James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Terminator”) spent a record-breaking $230 million on “Avatar,” and the good news is that he got his money’s worth on the technology — the 3D motion capture technology is stunning, many levels above anything that has ever been done before. He has literally created an entire world, the planet Pandora, so that every insect, plant, animal, waterfall, humanoid creature, and landscape and all of the physical properties that govern the way they interact has to be carefully thought through and consistently applied so that it is at the same time imaginative and credible. If it manages the second better than the first, that is still very impressive. And if it runs out of imagination and even some credibility when it comes to the plot, well, there is still enough on the screen to qualify as entertaining eye candy.
It takes place more than a hundred years in the future. Sam Worthington plays Jake, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair following an injury. His twin brother, a scientist, has been killed and Jake is given the chance to replace him on a major project for a big corporation. Jake does not have his brother’s training and experience but he has something even more important — the same DNA. Jake’s brother and his colleagues have mixed some of their DNA with that of a humanoid race on the planet Pandora to create hybrids that can be used as sort of puppets, manipulated by the humans to interact with the creatures on Pandora. Since Jake’s DNA matches, he qualifies. And he has a powerful incentive to participate. With the money he will get, he will be able to afford the surgery that will restore his ability to walk, which is not covered by his VA benefits. (Apparently, even a century from now we still won’t have that health care thing licked.) So Jake goes into a pod sort of thing and the next thing and into a sleep sort of state and the next thing you know he is digging big, blue toes into the Pandorian ground (I guess you don’t call it earth if it’s on another planet).
Those are very big, blue toes. The Pandorians are 10-foot tall, skinny, long-limbed creatures, sort of like America’s Next Top Model if they were blue and had tails. They have cat-like faces and long, braided hair that surrounds a sort of tentacled membrane that can be used like a USB cable to plug into energy sources in plants, animals, other Pandorians, and whatever they call what we here call earth. And speaking of whatever they call things, I’m just going to refer to them as people from now on.
So the Pandorians are a gentle people who commune deeply with nature. They kill animals for meat but they do it respectfully. They plug into to the special tree as though it was a cell phone recharger and reach out to each other in kumbaya circles to get in touch with their ancestors. And here is where the juggernaut of Cameron’s budget and energy outruns his imagination and it all starts to look like it was pieced together from bits of “Ferngully,” Pocahontas, National Geographic, assorted historical failures of colonialism, imperialism, and international intervention from the Indians to Viet Nam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus “Dances With Wolves.” “When people are sitting on [stuff] that you want,” explains one character, “you make them your enemies.” And, sure enough, the mercenary former Colonel calls the Na’vi “hostiles,” “aborigines,” and terrorists.
All of that work goes into designing the look of the planet and then the best name they can come up with is Pandora? As in the woman who unleashed all the troubles of the world, at least here on planet Earth? Why? And, since we know there has to be some sort of McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is that the hero and heroine have to get or do before the end of the movie) that must be difficult to obtain, let’s call it “unobtainium.” That sounds like something Dr. Evil would be cackling about while Basil Exposition brings Austin Powers up to date. It made me want to give Cameron an ultimatium.
Unobtainium is some very rare and precious ore underneath a tree sacred to a Pandorian tribe called the Na’vi that the evil corporation headed by Giovanni Ribisi wants to get at any cost. But for some reason, the Na’vi have resisted their efforts to cajole or bribe. When they agree to teach Jake their ways, the corporation realizes that if he gains their trust, they can use him to lead them to the tree. And then no more Mr. Nice Corporation. Bring out the bulldozers and the private army. Meanwhile, Jake is getting very close to the daughter of the Na’vi leaders (Zoe Saldana, with this and “Star Trek” now the 2009 fanboy dream girl). Apparently, another thing that is universal is kissing. And also falling for the guy your parents don’t approve of.
I am willing to believe those things occur on all planets, even the pervasiveness of the evil corporation as bad guy, too. But there are other elements in the story that just seem unoriginal and not very well thought through. The creatures seem like tweaked versions of Earth animals. Putting an extra pair of legs on a horse is, like stretching out a human form, not all that exciting, though it does add a bit more thunder to the hooves. The Na’vi wear conventional noble savage attire (skimpy, lots of beads), but the human avatars somehow fit cargo pants and t-shirts onto their Pandorian bodies (dealing with the tails must be a challenge).
But let’s face it, the unobtainium we seek in a movie like this one is not profundity. If the story is not new, the visual effects are. Even the subtitles (for when the characters speak in Na’vi language) help give the frame additional depth. The 3D is inviting and immersive, adding to the sense of vertigo or constriction. The integration of the live action and CGI footage is seamless and the performances of Worthington, Sigourney Weaver as a scientist, Michelle Rodriguez as a pilot and Stephen Lang as the Colonel provide some of the depth and grounding that the pixels and script do not deliver. And the pixels deliver the kind of fun that movies — and fangirls like me — were made for.