[Screen It]

(2009) (Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi/Action/Adventure: In the distant future on another planet, an Earthling goes undercover in an avatar body to infiltrate the indigenous race in hopes of helping his people get their hands on a valuable mineral located there.
It's the year 2154 and humans have exhausted and/or destroyed the resources on Earth. Accordingly, they've sent a corporate team headed by Parker Selfridge (GIOVANNI RIBISI) to the planet of Pandora to mine a valuable and powerful mineral known as Unobtainium. The indigenous, tribal type beings that live there, the blue-skinned and Amazonian type Na'vi, however, are none too happy about the "sky people" interlopers who are now infringing on their world.

While a team of military contractors lead by Col. Miles Quaritch (STEPHEN LANG) is raring to go guns blazing, Parker is allowing the diplomatic approach its chance to avoid bloodshed and thus bad PR back home. That effort is fronted by Dr. Grace Augustine (SIGOURNEY WEAVER) who's created a high-tech program where puppet Na'vi -- created by mixing the DNA of that race with the human variety -- serve as flesh and blood avatars controlled from a remote location by human operators.

Among them is former Marine Jake Sully (SAM WORTHINGTON) who lost function of his legs while in the Corps but can't afford to get them fixed. Grace isn't happy to see him since he's replacing his recently murdered brother who trained for years for this task, but since he shares the same genome with his sibling, Jake is given the green light and joins her and Norm Spellman (JOEL DAVID MOORE) in infiltrating the locals.

But Jake, still getting used to his new remote body, ends up separated from them and chopper pilot Trudy Chacon (MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ), and must contend with the dangerous and exotic wildlife that comes out at night. He ends up saved by warrior princess Neytiri (ZOE SALDANA), who nearly killed him earlier but got a sign from nature not to, and is then captured by lead warrior Tsu'tey (LAZ ALONSO) and taken back to the tribe and its leader (and Neytiri's father), Eytukan (WES STUDI). With his wife similarly sensing some potential greatness in Jake, Eytukan orders his daughter to train the outsider in their ways, unaware that Jake, while his avatar is sleeping, is back at headquarters feeding intel to Quaritch about how to plan their attack.

But the more time he spends with Neytiri and her people, the more Jake starts to see and then adopt their lifestyle, mindset, and connection with their natural world. As that puts him in direct conflict with Quaritch, Jake must then do what he can to protect his new friends from the military onslaught that's about to ravage them and their land.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Throughout the history of moviemaking and as is the case in most other industries, enhancements are always being made both to help those behind the camera as well as provide a better and more realistic product for the consumer. Save for some "making of" bonus features on home video, most viewers never see the mechanical and/or technological improvements that are put into practice, but they certainly see advancements in the viewing (and sometimes listening) experience.

First, of course, was the addition of sound, followed by color and then various incarnations of 3D imagery. What really upped the game, though, have been computer effects that just keep getting better and better, creating more realistic visual trickery, worlds and even completely fabricated characters.

Yet, no about of computer horsepower can outmatch the first and most important element of moviemaking -- the script. Simply put, if the tale isn't original (or at least a new and interesting slant on previous material), the characters aren't engaging and/or you don't feel much or sometimes even any emotional engagement, all you're left with is empty spectacle.

And that's exactly what bedevils "Avatar," writer/director James Cameron's much anticipated, mega-hyped and long-awaited follow-up to "Titanic" that sailed around the seas racking up billions of dollars and boatloads of awards back in 1997. Since then, the filmmaker -- who before that turned out other seminal action and special effects extravaganzas such as the two "Terminator" films, "Aliens," "The Abyss" and "True Lies") -- has been busy making underwater documentaries about the famously sunken ship that made him "king of the world."

He's also been inventing new technology (better and smaller 3D cameras, improved motion capture filmmaking, and the still hard to believe process of being able to see and "direct" virtual characters in the viewfinder while filming live action scenes, etc.) that he's stated has finally allowed him to make the picture he's been longing to do for decades.

It's clearly something to behold on the big screen (although, to be accurate, the effects are far more vibrant and sharp on the bits I've seen on my HDTV at home than in the theater where the 3D glasses muddy the picture and drop the luminance significantly), but one ends up wishing he spent a fraction of all that development time, energy and money in crafting a better story.

In short, it's a combination of the Pocahontas/John Smith story (told in "The New World" and other incarnations), "Dances with Wolves," "The Matrix," and, perhaps most surprising of all, "FernGully...The Last Forest." The latter, for those not familiar with the 1992 animated film, was about humans invading and attempting to destroy the pristine titular region and one of their own unintentionally ending up siding with the nature-connected locals to defend their spiritual home.

Here, we're in the future (year 2154) where humankind has pretty much destroyed Earth's resources and thus is trying to mine a valuable mineral from the planet Pandora. The only problem is the local "natives" (blue-skinned, slender Amazonian types with tails and ponytails that magically interconnect with plant and animal life) aren't happy about the intrusion of the "sky people" and aren't cooperating. Considering the reportedly dire situations back home, not to mention the high-tech firepower vs. the bow & arrow weaponry of the Na'vi, you start wondering why the militaristic invaders haven't already attacked and gotten what they wanted, but then we wouldn't have our movie, now would we?

Accordingly, the evil corporation (personified only by Giovanni Ribisi although other bodies are always around) is taking a two-pronged approach. While the gruff military leader (Stephen Lang in full stereotype mode, including barking out lines such as "You are not in Kansas anymore") waits in the wings, the diplomatic approach is being taken by a small team (lead by Cameron vet Sigourney Weaver) that's created the titular beings comprised of both Na'vi and human DNA and that are to be remotely controlled by operators back at HQ.

Our hero, John Smith, uh, Jake Sully, a paraplegic vet who's taking his recently murdered brother's place in the program, gets into his horizontal pod and, lo and behold, becomes one of the Na'vi to infiltrate and then convince them to move on. He ends up encountering a fierce warrior, Pocahontas, I mean Neytiri (a good Zoe Saldana, or at least what's been created out of her motion capture performance), who's ordered by her chief father (Wes Studi) to teach the newcomer their ways so that they can better understand him.

Of course, he doesn't let on about his mission or that the colonel, chomping at the bit to kick some alien butt, has promised to fix his legs if he provides useful, military intel for the pending attack should diplomacy fail. What follows is, well, no surprise to anyone who's seen any of the previously mentioned references flicks.

While it's interesting to see Cameron do a one-eighty on the Marines (good guys in "Aliens," the bad ones here) and tout spirituality over technology in a film that's been obviously created in full force with the latter, there's little if anything that emotionally connects. That's not to say that the film is void of engaging moments, but most are of the action variety (especially the last and quite long battle sequence that admittedly is something to behold).

There's no denying the filmmaker knows how to conceive and execute exciting scenes, but that's all the pic feels like -- a series of them enveloped in an all-too familiar story (with even the first few notes of the score sounding awfully familiar to that from "Titanic").

It certainly doesn't help that the various messages and themes he wishes to impart -- be they the metaphors for the past displacement of Native Americans; the Vietnam War; ruthless corporations; military types hired as gun-slinging and gung-ho "security" personnel (Blackwater, anyone); America invading other countries for valuable resources (including, I'm not kidding you, the threatened and then enacted use of "shock and awe" and using terror to fight terror), etc. -- are about as heavy-handed as they come.

After all that, the question that remains is whether it's worth seeing, especially on the big screen. Overall, I'd say yes, if only for the artificial (and 3D in most venues) world Cameron has created as well as those last forty minutes or so. While the effects are quite good, they're not groundbreaking as was the case with "The Abyss" and then "T2," and only raise the overall bar a notch at most.

But the biggest disappointment is that the story, beyond being tired and derivative of so many predecessors, doesn't completely draw you in and make you care about the characters as deeply as you should and want to. Whenever I would be pulled into the spectacle, I would just as quickly fall or be pushed out of it, looking at the pretty pictures but wishing for more. In the end, "Avatar" looks like the real deal, but it's just as emotionally devoid as the titular vessel creations in it when their remote operators are away. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 2008 / Posted December 18, 2009

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