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Avatar (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 162 minutes.

OK for children.

James Cameron generally gets the bang for his bucks, even though the bucks are mind-boggling. This fascinating sci-fi adventure took four years to produce. There is very little wasted on speeches about people contemplating their navels. Cameron’s films are action films and they proceed apace.

There are really two stories when you go to see Avatar. The first is that Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound former marine, goes to Pandora, a moon with an Earthlike environment 4.4 light years away, to work for a company mining a mineral key to resolving Earth’s  22nd Century energy crisis. Because earthlings can’t breathe in Pandora’s environment, the company has created avatars to go out into the environment. The consciousness of Jake and chief scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) are transferred to two avatars, so the avatars think and react like Jake and Grace. In fact, they are Jake and Grace in different bodies.

There’s a bad guy, Col Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and a love interest for Jake among the native Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). All the minerals are on Na’vi sacred land, so the company wants to destroy all the trees to get the minerals. Once Jake ventures forth as an avatar, unexpected things happen.

Cameron, who worships at the altar of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," made this as a roman à thèse, about indigenous people being taken advantage of by alien invaders with more advanced technology. This is a terrific point, witness how the native Americans were overwhlemed by Europeans (Cortez conquered the Aztec with 500 men, 13 horses and a few small cannons). Unfortunately (although perhaps understandably for someone who buys Gore's pitch), he pictures Americans as bad guys. This was not necessary. The invaders could have been extra-national. Even so, my feeling is that Cameron's intended anti-American political message should be ignored, because it's not essential to the enjoyment of the story.

The second story is how it was all put together. Are the avatars and the Na’vi real actors or animation? This is where true movie making science is at least as interesting as the movie itself. All the scenes were filmed with real actors as the avatars and Na’vi. But after all the scenes were shot with the human actors, the animators got involved and converted, I guess is the best word, all the actors' actions and movements, into the alien creatures of Pandora. When you see an avatar or Na’vi make an eye movement, for example, that’s the exact eye movement that the real actor made in the studio. The avatars and Na’vi are such realistic creatures that one never thinks of them as cartoons, or anything but real creatures.

The locale for the film is a lush tropical rainforest in the mountains. It looks astonishingly real, but it is all computer generated.

Filmed in mind-blowing IMAX 3-D, the story is so entertaining that I soon paid little attention to the 3-D. It’s a rip snorting tale until the final dénouement, which went on too long and strains credulity to the breaking point, even for sci-fi. Even though the entire story is fantasy, it’s Cameron’s talent that he creates it in such a way that it is believable…until the final battle.