The writer-director James Cameron needed to top “Titanic” and, in terms of sheer bigness, he’s succeeded. But the immensity cuts both ways. “Avatar” magnifies equally what is phenomenal and hackneyed about his talents. He’s made the most expensive cowboys-and-Indians movie ever made.
Set in 2154 on Pandora, a distant moon in the Alpha Centauri-A star system, it’s about a clash between the moon’s indigenous Na’vi clan and the humans who have traveled light-years to mine the moon’s precious minerals in order to stave off an energy catastrophe back home. Since the earthlings are mostly soldiers, and since their mission reeks of imperialist exploitation, the Na’vi, who resemble 10-foot-tall, taffy-pulled, long-tailed, yellow-eyed versions of the Blue Man Group and speak what sounds like a cross between Maori and Yiddish, are understandably unfriendly. But one of the earthlings, an ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), makes some headway.
Or, to be more precise, his Avatar does. The film’s central conceit is that, because the atmosphere on Pandora is poisonous for people, they devise a way to transform themselves into genetically engineered hybrids with human and Na’vi DNA. Because Jake shares the DNA of his late identical twin brother, who was trained for the Avatar mission, he becomes the chosen one. Mission commander Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) utilizes him as his undercover spy with the Na’vi. The colonel’s pacifist adversary, scientist and fellow Avatar Grace (Sigourney Weaver, for that “Aliens” vibe) wants to create a “bridge of trust” with them instead.
Jake is building his own bridge of trust with the comely Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a lissome Na’vi warrior who caroms through the jungle battling all manner of intergalactic beast (including one that looks like a panther crossed with a brontosaurus). For all the megamacho hardware in Cameron’s movies, he often features take-charge women (Weaver in “Aliens,” Linda Hamilton in the “Terminator” movies). “Avatar” certainly needs Neytiri’s sex appeal. Without her it might have devolved into the greatest movie ever made for 9-year-old fanboys. Which it sort of is anyway.
Cameron began writing “Avatar” more than 10 years ago, but placed it on hold until the technology could catch up with his imagination. In purely technogeek terms, he’s succeeded magnificently. This 3-D epic, which is also being released in 2-D, is truly state-of-the-art. The computer-generated imagery is far in advance of anything ever seen before, and this alone gives the film’s futurism a special tingle. We feel as if we are seeing things we have never seen before.
We have, however, heard much of this movie before. We’ve been through this story line before. Whizbang popular entertainer that he is, Cameron loves reanimating old-movie clichés. There were enough of them in “Titanic” to sink that ocean liner without the services of an iceberg. In “Avatar,” he flagrantly hauls out even more golden oldies. Maybe Netflix should open a franchise on Alpha Centauri.
But Cameron – like Quentin Tarantino, only much grander – is a master of pastiche. He makes the old new by investing it with a fervor all his own. It’s always a surprise to rediscover just how much Cameron cares about all this pulp paraphernalia. He also cares about the people in his movies – or at least the ones he doesn’t blow to smithereens – and this, too, distinguishes him from the usual run of catastrophe movie honchos. As corny as it is, the snugglefest between Jake and Neytiri hits home.
What doesn’t altogether work is the overemphasis on the earthling’s Vietnam-style invasion of Pandora. Some of the aerial battle scenes, complete with choppers firebombing villages, could have been lifted straight from “Platoon.” (The Na’vi fight back with bow and arrow.) And Cameron’s ecoterrorist and colonialist tropes are equally jarring. His boy’s book fantasyland can’t comfortably accommodate all this real-world referencing.
If I never felt entirely transported by “Avatar,” it’s probably because the story thudded just as often as the imagery soared. But Pandora is still a good place to park yourself for three hours. And you get to keep the 3-D glasses. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language, and some smoking.)