“Avatar” director James Cameron has been out of the spotlight for a few years since the rampant success of “Titanic.” But when the man behind such science-fiction classics as “The Abyss,” “Terminator” and “Aliens” comes out with a new movie, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice. Cameron is well known for his technological innovations, and he certainly delivers with “Avatar.”
The story takes place in 2154, when mankind has established a base on a planet known as Pandora. The planet is the sole source of a highly prized mineral. However, Pandora is extremely hazardous to humans due to the unbreathable atmosphere and many dangerous animals.
To cope with the harsh conditions, mankind has developed artificial life forms that are remotely piloted from secure locations. These so-called avatars are created by combining human DNA with that of the Na’vi, Pandora’s native 10-foot-tall blue humanoids. Due to genetic engineering, an avatar can only be controlled by one specific person. When his twin brother is killed, ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is tapped to replace him in the avatar program because of their identical DNA.
Upon arriving on Pandora, Sully is initially shunned by head scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) because of his background as a soldier and lack of scientific knowledge. However, he is embraced by the base’s militant commander Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) for the same reason. Sully is secretly assigned by Quaritch to spy on the Na’vi and learn how to defeat them should the long-simmering hostilities turn into a shooting war.
After having his avatar rescued by a female Na’vi named Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), Sully finds himself accepted by her tribe. He is instructed in their ways and grows to care about Neytiri and her people. When the inevitable conflict arrives between the humans and Na’vi, Sully must decide whose side he’s really on.
However, the movie’s appeal is not in the story, which is actually its weakest part.
The characters are shallow and almost caricatures in their behavior and dialogue. The plot introduces nothing that hasn’t been done before in numerous other movies. Cameron bludgeons the audience with the movie’s environmentally conscious theme.
Fortunately, the visuals more than make up for all of these shortcomings. The special effects are simply astounding. The computer-generated aliens don’t feel like cartoons, but true beings, which is vital since we spend so much time seeing them. The 3-D effects never feel forced or artificial as in so many other films. They seem like a natural part of the world. Speaking of worlds, Pandora truly feels like an alien planet. From the vegetation to animals to the landscape, Cameron’s famous attention to detail shines through everywhere on the crafted world.
While I wouldn’t say it flies by, the 161-minute run time never feels unwieldy when there’s a constant stream of new delights to gape at on-screen. Despite its shortcomings, “Avatar” is a film well worth watching.
Sit back and enjoy the trip to Pandora. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Rated: PG-13 (intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez
Running time: 161 minutes