I confess that I’m not a big fan of Big Movies. They’re often set-ups for disappointment, having ridden in to our theaters on a wave of hype, dominating the TV ads, the entertainment news, sometimes even making headlines. (Think “Titanic.”) So I wasn’t expecting much from “Avatar,” the latest offering from James “King of the World” Cameron, which enjoyed a veritable tsunami of pre-release publicity coming in to last weekend. Did I mention that it’s in 3-D, another frequent failure to please?
So I’m happy to report that, hey, it’s not that bad. The plot relies on underdeveloped characters, the dialogue won’t set any records for originality, and the Big Shootout and the payoff are almost entirely predictable. A couple of what I can only call production numbers are embarrassingly close to Disney, and the animist theology it preaches is simple-minded.
Still, that’s not really why we go movies of this ilk, is it? To think? We go to be overwhelmed, swallowed by a whale of a tale, rather than to have our thoughts provoked. On this score, Cameron succeeds, ably abetted by an army of over 800 technical helpers.
The story involves the ravaging of Pandora, a faraway planet in a faraway time, by a bunch of corporate thugs working for The Company. They’re after a mineral called “Unobtainium” (I couldn’t make this stuff up), a lode of which a group of natives, the Na’vi, are sitting on. That effort is spearheaded by a nasty little boss, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and his jut-jawed security chief, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), neither of whom has any qualms about getting hold of the stuff –worth $20 million/kilo—by any means necessary.
Another Company employee, Dr. Grace Augustus (Sigourney Weaver, who should know from aliens), an expert on this race of big blue humanoids, is doing biological/anthropological work of the most extreme sort. Not only does she know their language and their folkways, she actually inhabits a Na’vi body through a sort of remote control process. Grace has discovered some pretty deep connections between the Na’vi and their environment and wants to preserve both.
She gets some help in that endeavor from one Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine who is only involved because his twin brother has died and the mind/body transfer requires a genetic match. He successfully infiltrates the tribe, but is dazzled by and (of course) falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), an Amazon who can do stuff that only computer-generated imagery allows. Scornful and appropriately suspicious of Jake at first, she eventually accepts, teaches, and (of course) falls in love and mates with him.
Not surprisingly, ex-jarhead Sam goes native and joins his adoptive tribe in trying to resist the brutal military attack led by Quaritch. (Think “Dances with Wolves.”) Cameron fans will recall the man/nature vs. machine theme of the Terminator series, for which he was screenwriter. The battle scenes are prolonged and visually breathtaking, the makers pulling out all the stops, especially in the 3-D area. The attention to both detail and scope, here and throughout, makes us forget what mediocre fare we’re watching in the narrative.
“Avatar” is rated “PG-13” for violence and language, primarily, and that’s appropriate. The nostalgic, childlike charm of the 3-D glasses notwithstanding, this one may provoke nightmares among the very young. Oh, and if you’re one of the legions who wait until the movie comes out on video, you need to consider seriously braving the cold to see this one in the theater, where the 3-D on the big screen and the Surroundsound are major parts of the film’s appeal.