Movie review: 'Avatar' shows Cameron is king of a new world

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2010 - 8:17 AM

James Cameron returns to the big screen with an epic that mixes popcorn fantasy with poetic soul.

"Avatar" is a story about a trip to a new planet, and the film vibrates with the excitement of discovery and awe. Not just for the sight of six-legged rhinos and butterfly-hued dragons, but for the thousands of hours of work that unite here in a creative epiphany.

James Cameron's epic vision is finally onscreen, and its impact is stunning. The film is a breakthrough, a new chapter in the history of science fiction, like "Metropolis," "2001," "Star Wars" and "Blade Runner." It is a popcorn blockbuster with poetry in its soul.

Visuals drive "Avatar," visions of such sweep and quality that they deserve comparison to other masters of fantasy, from Walt Disney to Hieronymus Bosch. After hundreds of millions of dollars in research and production, Cameron has created a miraculous computer-generated world that can stand beside the most gorgeously photographed feature films. "Avatar" draws you into its alien world with unprecedented realism, using vivid graphics and 3-D processes.

The interactions between live actors and CGI creations, the emotional weight of the humanoid creatures' expressions, the details of delicate capillaries in leaves and the heft of hulking war machines all are brilliantly realized.

But it isn't visuals alone that make "Avatar" a marvelous, resonant film. Its power comes from its marriage of strong, well defined characters with a story that tests them to the limits of courage and compassion. The film is a sensually and psychologically immersive experience with thrill-ride sequences and romantic interludes that will put your heart in your throat. The visuals are the foundation of everything else.

Like 'Titanic,' an unlikely love

The plot has the blunt power of a comic book. In 2154, Earth has strip-mined its resources. A greedy corporation is colonizing distant Pandora to seize its supply of Unobtanium (yes, really). Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has set up a school for the locals, handsome blue-skinned humanoids called Na'vi. Her effort to win the hearts and minds of the "aboriginal horde" is going too slowly for slimy executive Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who wants them relocated away from his mining sites yesterday.

Into the project rolls Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-jarhead uniquely qualified to move among the natives by transplanting his consciousness to a genetically engineered Na'vi body: an avatar. The mining camp's security force is a battalion of ex-Marines led by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is the distilled essence of military machismo. He wishes Sully luck in convincing the Na'vi to move, but he's ready to power up his gunships and Iron Man gun-suits to obliterate the "blue monkeys."

As in "Titanic," Cameron puts an unlikely love affair at the center of the eye-popping action. Sully encounters Na'vi princess Neyfiri (Zoe Saldana) as he's about to be eaten by a pack of carnivorous space-wolves. With jungle prowess Tarzan would admire, she dispatches the beasts, then turns furiously on the interloper, whose ignorant clumsiness set off the useless slaughter. She castigates him as a "baby," a "child," but her protective instincts and attraction to his "strong heart" keep her by his side, guiding him through her world of phosphorescent jungles and floating mountains.

Yes, they kiss, and when they do it's magical. Back at Mission Control, Selfridge complains that their infiltrator has gone native, and Col. Quaritch's trigger finger gets itchy.

This isn't a morally deep story along the lines of "The Dark Knight"; it's good guys and bad guys on a vast, operatic scale. Nor is it especially new, even in its small details. By now we've seen Weaver pop out of a cryo-freezer more often than a box of toaster waffles. "Avatar" is elevated to greatness by Cameron's meticulous craftsmanship as an effects virtuoso and a storyteller. Every line of dialogue gooses the tale forward, and each image hums with wonder or terror.

The Na'vi use a kind of organic USB cord to hook into the minds of their steeds, controlling them by mental osmosis. Watching "Avatar," I felt that Cameron had hooked into my mental circuitry, downloading gigabytes of pure moviegoing bliss.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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