Avatar packs a groundbreaking visual wallop, but the story is old-school cheese | Film Review | Indy Week

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Avatar packs a groundbreaking visual wallop, but the story is old-school cheese

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Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) - PHOTO COURTESY OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Avatar opens Friday throughout the Triangle

The most likable thing about James Cameron's Avatar is the performance of supporting player Giovanni Ribisi, although Michelle Rodriguez, sexy-macho with her aviator shades always halfway down her nose, is a close second. The enjoyable thing about Ribisi is that he has such a hard time taking the proceedings seriously that he can barely keep from snickering. Conversely, the most cringe-inducing aspects of the film—and there are many—come from Cameron's delusion that there is nothing to laugh about in this schmaltzy, wanna-be epic about an ex-marine who falls in love with a giant blue cartoon.

That ex-marine is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington from Terminator Salvation), the kind of guy who says "What's up now, bitch?" with a straight face, sent to the American-occupied planet of Pandora as an avatar driver, where a corporate-sponsored scientific-military complex is in search of reserves of "unobtainium," a mineral worth lots of money. The name of the mineral is one of the few winks we get from Cameron, a hint that we shouldn't take all this too seriously; to be clear, however, Cameron doesn't treat anything else in the entire film nearly as lightly.

As an avatar driver—Jake's job is to get in a pod that plugs his brain into that of a humanoid creature that Jake's employers have fashioned to look like a Na'vi, a Pandora native. While Jake's body lies prone in the pod, his Na'vi avatar can prowl around Pandora, and when Jake wakes up, his 10-foot tall counterpart sleeps. While Jake is supposed to use his avatar strictly to chaperone scientists on recon missions, he's soon leaping around the planet unsupervised, getting in lots of trouble, and falling in love with a warrior princess named Neytiri (a CGI version of Zoe Saldana, from this year's much more enjoyable, much less tone-deaf Star Trek). Their courtship turns into a laborious second-act lathered in a desperate score that bears a refrain suspiciously similar to that of Titanic's megahit theme song.

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, right) teaches Jake (Sam Worthington) the skills he'll need to survive on Pandora. - PHOTO BY WETA/ TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Jake goes native, turned on by the psychedelic plant life and glowing bushes of Pandora, taking part in equestrian rituals in which his ponytail plugs conveniently into the thready tentacle of his adopted planet's horse-like hoofers. The fact that most of the beasts on this planet come equipped with USB ports, and that they are all simply enlarged grotesqueries of familiar animals, are two tellingly unimaginative (and geeky) elements of Cameron's fantasyland.

Does any of this really matter? Arguably, Avatar's raison d'etre is the ballyhooed 3-D effects, in which rollicking waves of water wash up at our noses and flames of interplanetary battles drift over our heads. (The friend I saw Avatar with was as aware of the film's problems as any detractor, but said the overwhelming effects more than made up for the movie's problems.)

While this device is a lot of fun, it also feels pretty gimmicky, and it's hard to really enjoy the potential pleasures of immersion when the world we're offered is so self-serious. The 3-D is much more effective in the segments that take place on the military base—maybe one-fourth of the film—because the scenes take place in a familiar world, expanded and realized in a (technically) groundbreaking manner. As simple things happened in "performance capture" (Cameron's coinage)—like cars moving from foreground to back, or lab tables being wheeled in and out of rooms—I found myself genuinely wondering what it would have looked like in a conventionally shot film. I'm sure Cameron would be proud that I once found myself wondering what movies used to look like, back in early 2009. But in the world of Pandora, where everything, including the characters, is digitally animated, the fun dissipates.

A Na'vi warrior races into battle on a Thanator, a panther-like creature native to Pandora. - PHOTO BY WETA/ TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

CGI effects have always gotten more credit than they deserve, and Avatar is essentially as much a cartoon-live action hybrid as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and when it goes pure fantasy, the feeling of the ground shifting beneath you is lost, because of all the New Age hokum and forests that look like a black light poster come to life. You don't have to be too much of a killjoy to very quickly feel above it all, and you might even feel a little unseemly when you find yourself chuckling at the one-liner clunkers. After all, it's not really that much fun to laugh at something that's not in on its own joke.

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