James Cameron's Avatar is a pretty good sci-fi/fantasy (more fantasy) flick. It's gotten a lot of buildup from being in production for so long and having so many spectacular effects, and indeed something unique has been achieved in this film. The effects are spectacular as advertised, the 3-D involving, a whole alien world is created in which the characters have been digitally created from actors' performances, and the film is quite a ride.
That said, it's also pretty derivative, paper-thin logically, with terrible dialogue and no real innovation in its storytelling overall. I love the Ray Bradbury quote bemoaning the science fictional consequences of Star Trek, to the effect that it made aliens not much more than humans with crap on their faces. Digital effects have now advanced to the degree that humans can actually aspire to be the crap on the aliens' faces.
The film's plot and various appurtenances owe big debts to Dances with Wolves, Star Trek, "The Smurfs," Sea Monkeys, The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, Hellboy, Philip K. Dick, and Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels (soon to be movies themselves).
So to the actual plot, Jake Scully (Sam Worthington, not as good here as in his other Cameron-related project for 2009, Terminator Salvation) is a Marine who has lost the use of his legs in an accident. Coincidentally, his twin brother is involved in a very complicated project requiring his specific DNA, so Jake is brought in on it as the only other alternative, requiring him to travel to a remote planet, Pandora, to try to figure out how to replace him, and incidentally earn a spinal cord-replacement operation which could restore him to full health.
To do so, he must balance the prerogatives of the scientific team, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who wants to convince the natives to get out of the way of progress, and the military team, who would be happy to annihilate first and ask questions later. And he must do it all as a huge blue Pandoran bred with half of his late brother's DNA.
Along the way, he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek), and convinces her to show his odd intruder alien the ways of her people. He engages in a love affair with her and finds himself conflicted over whether he could best help his human cohorts or his new alien clan. Neytiri learns to love a narcoleptic, as Jake's alien body shuts down whenever he's not online, especially problematic for action scenes.
The Pandoran world is quite beautiful and convincingly created, despite the many threads of Earth cultures woven in--Native American, Indian, Buddhist, Maori, with a dose of Anne McCaffrey's dragonriders thrown in for good measure. Still, it's a wonder to watch, if a bit of a cultural and ideological mess.
The acting is pretty solid, though bad dialogue for Worthington and Weaver hurt their characters. Giovanni Ribisi is completely over-the-top, and his silly accent here is not as effective as his silly accent in 2009's Public Enemies. Stephen Lang is good as the military commander, here dedicated to destroying the hippie aliens, whom his character in 2009's The Men Who Stare at Goats wanted to learn from. And Zoe Saldana is excellent in her digitally transplanted performance.
Avatar may be a 3-D landmark, an innovative effects movie, and pretty good, but its weak points are not minor, they do take away from the achievement. I'd like to have seen a more creative use of its strong points to serve a stronger story. It's okay, just a bit overhyped.
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