The blue broth­ers

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Avatar, sci­ence fic­tion ad­ven­ture, rated PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 2.5 chiles

Since be­ing ap­pointed King of the­World on the Os­car stage in 1998, James Cameron has spent most of his reign away from the pub­lic eye. He dab­bled in TV, di­rected doc­u­men­taries about un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration, and per­haps took some time to swim in his Ti­tanic roy­al­ties, throw­ing gold coins in the air like Scrooge McDuck. But he was also work­ing on Avatar for much of this time. The project had been in the back of his mind since the mid-1990s, wait­ing for the right tech­nol­ogy to ar­rive so he could bring it to life. Well, the tech­nol­ogy is here, and so is the movie.

We’ll start with the bad news. The script and con­cept ac­tu­ally seem as though they’ve been on the shelf for a bit too long. Even the ti­tle seems outdated: in the In­ter­net era, the word avatar, which was once fairly ex­otic-sound­ing, has be­come com­mon­place in a way that doesn’t scream “sci­ence fic­tion ad­ven­ture.” The plot cen­ters on a mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­tion to the planet of Pan­dora to re­trieve an el­e­ment called Un­ob­tainium (se­ri­ously) from un­der­neath the homes of the in­dige­nous peo­ple known as the Na’vi. This isn’t a new story by any means; the cre­ator of Ter­mi­na­tor and The Abyss can do bet­ter.

Jake Sully (SamWor­thing­ton) is a for­mer mil­i­tary man who lost the use of his legs. He’s called to Pan­dora be­cause his late brother was train­ing to use an avatar— a syn­thetic body that would al­low him to in­fil­trate the tall, blue Na’vi— and Jake pos­sesses the right DNA to use the same avatar. Jake meets the sci­en­tists, led by Grace Au­gus­tine (Sigour­neyWeaver), who are there to study the planet. They drop his con­scious­ness into the avatar, and he ven­tures into the tribe, where he is ac­cepted and even falls in love (with an alien played by Zoë Sal­dana). Do you think this will af­fect his de­ci­sions when the mil­i­tary de­cides it wants to de­stroy the tribe’s land?

Un­for­tu­nately, the movie is stocked with crude car­i­ca­tures, from the spir­i­tual tribes­men to the kindly sci­en­tists, the amoral mil­i­tary ag­gres­sor (Stephen Lang), and the slimy cor­po­rate weasel (Gio­vanni Ribisi). It’s true that peo­ple like this ex­ist in real life and that th­ese are pow­er­ful cin­e­matic archetypes, but you’d hope for a few more curve­balls and sur­prises in a movie that is two hours and 42 min­utes long. This is a full hour longer than I would have liked.

But here’s the good news: the movie looks like some­thing that took a decade to con­cep­tu­al­ize and cre­ate. My God! Pan­dora is the most fully re­al­ized fic­tional world that’s ever been put up on screen, and eas­ily the best use of 3-D tech­nol­ogy. Sure, at times it looks like a black-light poster, a glow-in-the-dark aquar­ium, or an al­bum cover for a 1970s prog-rock band. But imag­ine the matte paint­ings of older movies like King Kong brought to full life. Moun­tains float in the sky, glow­ing mush­rooms shrink into the ground when touched, and trees give off lit­tle jel­ly­fish-like pheromones.

Pan­dora is pop­u­lated by rub­bery, ag­gres­sive an­i­mals. Some of them re­sem­ble pan­thers, oth­ers warthogs. Cameron gives spe­cial at­ten­tion to the ptero­dactyl-like birds. The Na’vi use th­ese flu­o­res­cent, fly­ing beasts in com­bat, and it leads to some of the more ex­cit­ing se­quences in the film. I liked the way all of the an­i­mals were clearly crafted with highly ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy but have the joy of cre­ation that is in­her­ent to older spe­cial ef­fects. The scene in which Jake tames his fly­ing beast, for ex­am­ple, re­minded me of ef­fects leg­end Ray Har­ry­hausen’s “gi­ant chicken” scene in the 1961 film Mys­te­ri­ous Is­land.

The ve­hi­cles used by the mil­i­tary in the movie are equally im­pres­sive, from the he­li­copters with pro­pel­lers on each wing to the gi­ant ex­oskele­ton that is sim­i­lar to the oneWeaver wielded in Aliens. The re­mark­able thing about this equip­ment is not nec­es­sar­ily how it was con­cep­tu­al­ized— the Star Wars pre­quels had ex­cel­lent con­cepts, and no­body cared— but how it looks like plau­si­ble, well-used equip­ment, right down to the hinges and joints. The con­trol rooms, with mul­ti­ple holo­graphic screens, look par­tic­u­larly nifty in 3-D.

The Na’vi are im­pres­sively ren­dered with mo­tion-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy and detailed ef­fects. I’ve never seen ac­tors made into alien crea­tures so ef­fec­tively. I was able to rec­og­nizeWes Studi as Ey­tukan, the tribe’s pa­tri­arch, de­spite not know­ing Studi was even in the film. Some­how, the char­ac­ter looked like Studi and like a gi­ant blue flat­nosed alien. I couldn’t say much about his act­ing, partly be­cause I’m un­sure where the ac­tor ended and the com­puter ef­fects be­gan, and partly be­cause his char­ac­ter was fleshed out bet­ter on the com­puter screen than in the script.

Ul­ti­mately, I ap­pre­ci­ated the care that went into cre­at­ing this unique planet much more than the story that is told on the planet. You could tell Cameron was not sat­is­fied to just make space­ships; he also wanted to know how the space­ships worked. And you could tell that the planet’s ecosys­tem was planned out in great de­tail (Cameron has re­vealed that he even worked with botanists on nam­ing the plants). This un­prece­dented at­ten­tion to de­tail is the true achieve­ment of Avatar. I of­ten found my­self wish­ing that we got a David At­ten­bor­ough-hosted tour of the jun­gle, rather than the dime­store-novel ad­ven­ture slapped on a $300-mil­lion (or there­abouts) back­drop.

My aim is blue: Sam Wor­thing­ton and Zoë Sal­dana

Sem­per CGI: Stephen Lang

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