Avatar: Welcome Back, Cameron

By Zach Oat
|  Friday, Dec 18, 2009  |  Updated 10:30 AM CDT
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It's good to have the old James Cameron back after so long. Ignoring Titanic (as tricky as that sounds), it's been 15 years since his last action movie, so any movie that lets him play with robots and aliens and oversized machine guns is a reason to celebrate. Not the only reason, of course -- you want the movie to be watchable, right?

Luckily, the movie is not only visually stunning (especially in 3D), it's actually a thrilling, if slightly familiar action tale. Not once did I roll my eyes or emit an audible groan at anything in the plot or dialogue, and I consider that a win in my book. Hell, I even got a little bit of rainforest in my eyes a couple of times, and I'm not one who's overly prone to crying... except during sentimental, uplifting, on-message sci-fi epics, of course.

By now, you probably know the plot: marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) goes to alien moon Pandora to drive an alien body for a joint corporate/scientific/military expedition and make nice with an alien race called the Na'vi, who live on top of a mother lode of a highly sought-after mineral. (I take it back -- I did roll my eyes when they called the mineral "unobtanium," because that's a stupid name. Was "gottacatchemallium" taken?) Why it's so valuable is kind of glossed over, as is the general state of Earth, which may not have plant life anymore. Regardless, Life on Earth is bad enough for Sully, who lost the use of his legs in combat and then lost his twin brother in a mugging gone bad, to want to take the Pandora job, one his scientist bro had been training for for three years, and one that needed Sully's blood to work.

What follows is mostly Dances With Wolves on mescaline. Disdained by the scientists who wanted his brother and manipulated by the military who want to learn the Na'vi's weaknesses, Jake ends up getting adopted by the tribe when their sacred tree identifies him as a Na'vi of interest. He is taught how stupid he and the other fake Na'vi look while wearing clothes (it's true), and once the pants come off and he is truly accepted as one of them, it's a quick ride to realizing that the Na'vi are to be protected, especially his hottie cultural tour guide Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). By then, however, it's too late, since he's already told the military exactly how to destroy the giant, hollow tree they live in. So he has to rise up as a human rebel and a Na'vi hero to stop them.

To quote Top Secret!, "It all sounds like some bad movie!" But it really isn't. The story may seem familiar, but the movie tries to back up its new-age spiritualism with some science (well, science fiction), and the old military-industrial chestnut lovingly lifted from Aliens leads us to some devastating images of war. Sigourney Weaver doesn't phone it in as the scientist who embraces Jake once he proves himself to be useful, becoming a mother figure who protects both him and her program from outside influence. Stephen Lang is scary awesome as the scarred (and ripped) Colonel Quaritch, who would rather kill them all, and Giovanni Ribisi puts Aliens' Paul Reiser on notice as the sleazy corporate representative. Even Michelle Rodriguez and Joel Moore deliver solid performances as the sympathetic pilot and the Na'vi expert who finds himself eclipsed by Jake the Dumb Marine.

It's hard to judge the acting performances by the Na'vi themselves, but Zoe Saldana gives a pretty ferocious vocal performance as Neytiri, and the programmers put her through the full range of emotions, making her look like... well, a real person, which is the whole point of this exercise, right? The rest of the Na'vi are equally real, if more stock characters than anything else (the proud chief, the regal mother, the scornful rival), and the humans-as-Na'vi... well, as I said, they look silly in clothes. It's hard to judge Sigourney Weaver's performance when her alien is wearing a college athletics T-shirt, and hearing Jake smack-talk a hammer-headed jungle rhinoceros is just bizarre.

The creatures are definitely the most amazing thing about the visual effects. The hammerhead rhinos, a hard-shelled jungle cat, a pack of skinless wild dogs, 6-legged horses, the pterodactyl-like Banshees and the massive, flying leonopteryx are all spotlighted in the film, but even the bioluminescent flora, the retracting lichens and the tiny lizards that travel around by spinning their bioluminescent tails like helicopters are beautiful to see. The military hardware is nothing special -- even the exo-suits of armor are fairly generic -- but the depictions of war and battle are incredibly vivid and horrible. There's no gore, but there is death and destruction, and at one point, a six-legged horse runs by on fire.

This is not a movie for kids -- it has its fun moments, but the vivid horrors of war that happen in the latter half of the film, coupled with a whole lot of swearing and a two-hour, 41-minute runtime, make it a tough movie to sit through with a young'un, as cute as the giant cat-Smurfs are. And you're gonna want to sit through it, because Jim Cameron still knows how to make good movies, even if he has to borrow elements from his older good movies to do it.

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