Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I don't know if I'm the last person in the industrialized world to have seen AVATAR (2009), but it sure feels like it. Although I'm a very big fan of James Cameron's ALIENS and TERMINATOR films, I thought TRUE LIES was rather confused, and found TITANIC to be a, well, titanic bore. So, when the hype began for his new CGI cartoon, AVATAR, I had little interest in seeing it. The fact that my local theater was not then equipped to project 3-D movies contributed to that disinterest.

However, a review copy showed up in my mailbox a couple days ago, and my wife and I sat down to watch it the other night. I decided to wait a couple of days before writing this review, because I wanted to sort through my various conflicting reactions and gather my thoughts on the film before publicly voicing my opinion on the largest-grossing motion picture of all time.

The jungle planet/moon Pandora is rich in a rare mineral called unobtanium (sheesh), and an Earth corporation wants it. Unfortunately, the planet has an indigenous population of tall, slender blue humanoids, and it would be bad publicity to just wipe them all out and take the ore. The company has a base on Pandora, run by a Blackwater-type private army, and as part of the operation, there is a small, token scientific team comprised of anthropologists that project their consciousness into bio-engineered "avatars" that are physically identical to the natives (called the Na'vi) and used to study their culture/planet. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, who becomes an "avatar driver" when his scientist twin brother inconveniently dies. On his first foray into the wild, Sully is cut off from his team and rescued by the local Na'vi princess (of course), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, STAR TREK). Eventually Sully and the blue girl fall in love, and he goes native, ultimately leading the aborigines against his own people in a battle for the future of the planet.

The set-up is kinda cool, but once the plot gets going, it's incredibly predictable and familiar. Borrowing from everything from the interplanetary pulp adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis Adelbert Kline to Disney's POCAHONTAS, and few thousand other sci-fi novels and comic books, AVATAR is a highly derivative fantasy, and full of scientific and narrative holes. It's also astoundingly heavy-handed in its "message."

But, chances are, you already know all this. The real attractions here are the astounding CGI visuals, and there's no question that they're impressive, even in 2-D on the small screen. The film is very well designed, and if the planet Pandora is a bit too Disney for me, there's no question that the artists and technicians that labored for years on the film have produced exceptional work. I'm not a fan of motion-capture CGI "animated" characters - I usually find them off-putting, emotionally-distancing and, well, creepy, and at the beginning, I felt the same way about the Na'vi. But over the film's nearly 3-hour running time, my resistance was worn down, and although it never felt remotely "real" to me, I did eventually stop finding the mix of live action and animation so jarring.

Fox Home Video's DVD presentation of AVATAR is a bare-bones, no-frills affair that features a gorgeous, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. There are no extras whatsoever.

I found AVATAR entertaining while I was watching it, but when it was over, I was unmoved. It's pretty - and I'm sure that in 3-D on an IMAX screen it was a hell of an experience - but as a movie, it's hollow and over familiar. If you dug the film in theaters, and don't care about supplemental features, then this disc is adequate - and cheap. If you're a fan, and you're willing to wait a bit, I'm betting there will be a special edition at Christmas.

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