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"Avatar" enlivens 3D but its achievements are evolutionary

Zoé Saldana co-stars in James Cameron's 3D blockbuster "Avatar," which has returned to movie theatres.


Starring Sam Worthington, Zoé Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Giovanni Ribisi. Written and directed by James Cameron. 166 minutes. Re-release now screening at Toronto-area theatres. PG

⭐⭐⭐ (out of 4 stars)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Anyone going to James Cameron's 3D blockbuster "Avatar" with "Titanic"-sized expectations about the future of cinema needs to throttle back or risk disappointment.

Cameron hasn't reinvented the wheel or found a new way to butter popcorn with his epic space fantasy, which has returned to cinemas in advance of the long-awaited sequel coming later this year. The filmmaker's achievements are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The ironic and most impressive thing about "Avatar," which reportedly cost a record $500 million (U.S.) to make, is how unobtrusive the advanced 3D technology is.

Cameron has successfully made a digital blockbuster feel as warm as an old-time movie, where blood temperature was more important than pixels.

Nothing leaps into your face or onto your lap. There is no "Jurassic Park" jolt of barriers being broken. "Avatar" immerses the viewer into a multi-dimensional experience in a way that feels completely natural (no small feat for 3-D), even on a distant planet called Pandora that is lit like a fluorescent painting.

Better still are the characters, which could be described as the most humanlike synthetic creations to date were it not for the fact they're semi-naked blue aliens called Na'vi, who stand 10 feet tall and wave long tails.

Their numbers come to include Earthling Jake Sully (Australia's Sam Worthington), a paralyzed U.S. Marine, whose human form remains in suspended animation while his life force assumes the form of a Na'vi warrior (the avatar of the title).

This complicates allegiances on both sides, especially when Sully catches the eye of winsome female Na'vi archer Neytiri (Star Trek's Zoe Saldana).

Not for a moment do we doubt that these are "real" figures, since Cameron and his boffins have every eye blink and nose twitch down with exacting and gratifying realism. The same goes for the many fearsome animals roaming Pandora, especially winged dragons known as the Banshee, which riders must risk their lives to tame.

Cameron may have spent too much time on the look of the film, and not enough on the story, though he claims to have been writing it since 1994.

This saga of a so-called civilized man joining a not-so-primitive tribe is hardly original, and early suggestions that Avatar would play like an interplanetary "Dances With Wolves" have been largely borne out. Fans of the original "Star Trek" TV series may also find more than a few parallels with the beloved episode "The Paradise Syndrome."

Cameron lays it on thick with his political and environmental analogies. The film is set in the year 2154, but the thinking is strictly Bush-era War on Terror and "shock and awe" diplomacy. The U.S. military rules the cosmos with an iron fist, and anybody who gets in the way is deemed a threat to the Earth's (read: America's) best interests.

The Na'vi village and the all-knowing Tree of Life they worship are located atop a cache of a rare mineral called "unobtainium," which the militaristic Earthlings need to revive their shattered planet. Only by plundering another heavenly body can they save their own, logic clearly meant to resonate with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, for those with a deeper grasp of history, in the conquering of native North Americans by European explorers.

Narrative beefs aside, Cameron stands second to none in his drawing of heroes (and heroines) and villains, and he's a dab hand at placing romance within catastrophe.

By casting the relative unknowns Worthington and Saldana as the film's protagonists and lovers, he's found good actors who don't distract with any Hollywood notoriety.

And he's given them a crackerjack villain in Stephen Lang's Col. Miles Quaritch, a Sgt. Fury type who firmly believes in shooting first and asking questions later. If he had a moustache, he could twirl it in 3-D.

Cameron's sole concession to the marquee is casting his "Aliens" heroine Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, a cynical biologist who loves the Na'vi but not her own body. She also briefly assumes Na'vi form, but her real role is to give "Avatar" an extra jolt of personality, which is needed during the film's long middle stretch.

Technology always needs the human touch, as Cameron well knows. 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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