CINEMA: Dark Ride Of The Moon

avatar-movie-poster.jpgAVATAR (2009, directed by James Cameron, 162 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Avatar has been unleashed! Aided by ever-faster microchip technology James Cameron has given us a future world we’ve never seen with such clarity. With his audience goggled up for 3-D like motocross racers, Cameron’s long-gestating sci-fi fantasy zooms you through foreign jungles with hitherto unseen big-screen spectacle. For people looking to sit in a theme park ride two hours and forty-some minutes, your moment has arrived. People love roller coasters, I love roller coasters, but I don’t receive the emotional jolt from those four-story drops that I receive from my favorite films. Avatar might be an experience you don’t want to miss, but I can help but mourn what it could’ve have been had it contained the richness of a great film as well. Cameron’s loopy vision has revealed Avatar to be both his theatrical highpoint and his worst-directed film to date.

Like a video game, Cameron hangs this massive production on the barest bones of a tale, and it is the oft-told soldier “gone native” story that is part of the narratives of Apocalypse Now, Little Big Man, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, etc. Given a sci-fi twist, the soldier Jake (last summer’s Terminator, Sam Worthington) is transferred into the body of a ten-foot blue alien from the Na’vi tribe, who live on the prehistoric jungle planet of Pandora. The U.S. is coveting a rare mineral of the planet (called “Unobtainium”, yuk yuk) and they’re hoping that Jake can broker a deal to move the Na’vi off their sacred land so U.S. interests can get to strip-mining.

What a surprise, Jake enjoys being a ten foot tree-hugger in the Eden of Pandora more than being a handicapped vet on his withering home planet! What a shock when Jake and the svelte, model-hot Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) go from arguing to loving! Typical of these imperial fantasies, within a few weeks of being brought into the tribe Jake has won the princess’ heart, mastered the rituals of their culture, become their leader and even rides their “un-rideable” giant orange bat. Is there anything a disciplined Marine can’t do? The plot is terribly familiar, despite all the characters glowing like exotic deep sea fish, and at two and a half hours Avatar drags its tail in propelling the story to where we knew we were going all along.

Twelve years is a long time between films and like George Lucas when heavatar_poster2.jpg re-emerged to direct the Star Wars sequels, Cameron has developed some real rust on him, especially as a screenwriter. When you’re the CEO of a quarter billion dollar venture like this there must be plenty of “yes men” around; this might explain why Cameron-penned tough guy insults like “num-nuts” and ”pukes” survived re-writes. If two and a half hours is the length Cameron prefers for his films, he needs to write better-defined characters then the interchangeable cast he’s assembled here. And give them something more to do than root earnestly for our Jake. I’m guessing that if someone on the set suggested that the villains (evil businessman Giovanni Ribisi and evil-er general Stephen Lang) needed more depth, Cameron rushed to the camera to re-adjust the 3-D lenses.

Once you become accustomed to Avatar‘s undeniable scope, its lack of cleverness is laid bare. Cameron has never seemed so eager to pull out his old tricks, whether it is the never-ceasing “My Heart Will Go On” soundalike score, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley-esque scientist or another fight with one of the robot-suit loaders from Aliens. Avatar carries a preponderance of old baggage for being the Next Big Thing.

It’s a shame because there is real beauty that emerges out of the bombast from time to time, with the over-sized neon fauna and the film’s radiant purples and greens. At every turn though, Cameron’s insecurity as a storyteller and as a showman lets him down. Wanting to increase a scene’s drama used to call on a director’s invention, now it seems like it is too easy just to pump up the drama by cutting and pasting a few dozen more of the CGI threat onto the screen. Further undercutting the drama is Cameron’s love of the visceral, which leads him to linger too long behind Jake as he jumps, swings and flips across our view, as if he is powered by an unseen joystick. One half-expects to see points accruing in the upper right-hand corner. All this shock and awe doesn’t disguise the paradox at Avatar‘s heart: its a film that propagandizes embracing nature, made in a medium that makes the spontaneous gesture impossible. Maker of air-tight fantasy recommends crowd in 3-D glasses gets back to nature; Doctor Cameron, don’t discount healing yourself.

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