Movie review: 'Avatar' will knock your socks off
How do you follow "Titanic," the highest grossing film of all time and winner of 11 Academy Awards?
If you're director James Cameron, you wait 12 years for your next movie in order to build expectations to skyscraper heights and then you film a remake of "Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town."
Or you make "Avatar," a special-effects extravaganza using 3-D and motion-capture technology with such creative gusto that it'll knock your socks, stockings and 3-D glasses off. The film is quite simply a visual masterpiece that needs to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. Those who wait for the DVD will be disappointed unless their home theater looks like an IMAX.
Unfortunately, those who want a great story will be disappointed, too. As amazing and groundbreaking as the special effects are, the script suffers from a serious case of the derivatives. Check out the plot.
A soldier is stranded in the wilderness. He comes in contact with native people, who are wary of him because troops have been exploiting their land. He meets one of the natives and falls in love with her, learning their language and appreciating their culture along the way. We discover they're big into nature.
He then decides to fight on the side of the natives against the troops. For good measure, there's a native warrior who is slow to warm to the soldier and a wild animal the soldier tames.
Sound familiar? Ever see "Dances with Wolves"?
There are at least some differences. Here, the soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), becomes an avatar so that he resembles the native people, who instead of "red skin" have blue skin. Called the Na'vi, they're also about 10 feet tall, have cat-like features and sport long tails. They live on the planet Pandora, rich in a mineral called Unobtainium. Yes, that's its name. Reminds this critic of Upsidasium from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."
Anyway, the Resources Developmental Administration - substitute your favorite evil conglomerate here - wants this mineral to solve an energy crisis back on Earth in the year 2154. The problem is the mineral is on Na'vi property and the natives for some reason don't appreciate seeing their planet turned into a wasteland.
So instead of killing natives in a Manifest Destiny land grab, the administration kills natives as it rapes the environment. You'd almost think the film has a message or two to drive home.
Trying to play peacekeeper in this power struggle is Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist who runs the avatar program formed to learn more about and better relate to the Na'vi. Jake's avatar is on board to protect Augustine and her fellow scientists. He's also recruited by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the administration's head of security, to spy on the Na'vi in case a military solution is needed.
The best way to enjoy "Avatar" is to try not to pay too much attention to the dialogue and just revel in Cameron's sci-fi fantasy world. Imagine a "Jurassic Park" with the dinosaurs getting a serious facelift so that they resemble a brand new menagerie. The landscape is equally as stunning, populated by majestic trees and floating mountains.
The live-action scenes suffer by comparison. The script also fails to forge the strong emotional bond that existed between Kevin Costner's character and the Native Americans in "Dances with Wolves." The relationship between Sully and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) never heats up, with the script lacking humanity and humor. That's to be expected, I suppose, since, in "Avatar," acting plays a supporting role to the special effects.
It's almost as if Cameron is saying to the audience, "You thought the sinking of the Titanic was cool? Wait until you see Pandora." And wait until you see the climactic battle scene! Did you actually think the administration would give peace a chance?
But who will win? The Na'vi fight with bows and arrows and Quaritch's soldiers employ modern weapons. It's David vs. Goliath with David armed with a feather instead of a slingshot.
For more Xerox moments, Quaritch battles Sully operating a robot straight out of "Aliens," which just happened to be directed by Cameron. At least this time he's ripping himself off.
Despite its plot problems and cinematic borrowings, "Avatar" merits a look-see for the simple reason that it transports the viewer to a whole new world - cue the Disney song - filled with eye-popping wonders. Give Cameron the time and the money - the film's budget is the vicinity of $300 million - and he'll delivers the goods, even without Leo, Celine Dion and the Aeolian harp.
Bob Tremblay writes for the MetroWest Daily News