src=”http://tweetmeme.com/i/scripts/button.js”>I can imagine Robert Zemeckis — whose botched motion-capture animated features “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol” were full of rubbery, dead-eyed, freakish-looking human constructs — watching James Cameron’s “Avatar” with an expression on his face not unlike F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri listening to his first Mozart composition in “Amadeus.”
From a technical standpoint, “Avatar” is a game-changer, a paradigm shift, the greatest thing since sliced “2001.” In the same way that “The Matrix” and its technological advances reverberated over the ensuing decade, so will “Avatar” act as a bellwether for the next wave of effects-heavy genre films.
I just wish it were a better movie. For all of Cameron’s soaring accomplishments in creating realistic motion-capture characters and his deft handling of the new era of 3D, “Avatar” feels both familiar and overlong. You’ve traveled this road before, even if now you’re doing it in a blinged-out luxury vehicle with personal seat-warmers and a dozen cupholders.
Sam Worthington (“Terminator Salvation”) stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine who gets recruited by a corporation to take over a job for his recently deceased twin brother. The gig involves sleeping through a five-year space voyage and arriving at Pandora, a moon chock-full of a valuable element called Unobtainium; the Na’vi, the local race, haven’t meshed well with the humans, so the corporation has created beings out of human and Na’vi DNA.
These beings are controlled by human operators and act as, ta-dah, avatars. Jake, naturally, is thrilled to be back in a body that can stand and walk, even if it’s via mental remote control. The avatar work is a scientific expedition run by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who’s not thrilled about having Jake around since he doesn’t have the training (or Na’vi language skills) of his late brother. But security chief Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — the claw marks on his skull indicate no love lost between himself and the indigenous population — wants Jake to spy for him and find out what the Na’vi will barter for; failing that, the colonel wants intel on how best to wipe out the tall, blue local creatures.
Jake’s background as a warrior and not a scientist comes in handy when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek”), who becomes his trainer in the Na’vi ways. She shows him how to communicate with the local flora and fauna, to fall from great heights and land gently with the help of the leafy plants in the rainforest and to bond with and control the local flying creatures.
You can guess what happens next: love story, invasion of the white man, trail of tears, revenge of the underdog. Cameron’s screenplay, for all its vivid characterizations and rich depiction of an alien race, has no shame about set-ups along the lines of “Only two of our greatest warriors have ever captured the golden French fry,” followed by, inevitably, “Gasp! He has captured the golden French fry!”
Still, “Avatar” demands to be seen on the big screen. The interaction of human and animated characters reaches a new level of seamlessness, and the avatars for Jake and Grace retain elements of Worthington’s and Weaver’s faces while still looking believably alien. (Cameron claims he could do human motion-captures that are as realistic as his blue creatures, but until he really does it, his boast seems far-fetched.) It’s almost impossible to tell where the real people and objects on his set end and the fakery begins, and that’s the ultimate goal for effects work, right?
Visually, the movie veers back and forth between eye-popping visual poetry and shots that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a pulpy ’70s sci-fi paperback. Cameron’s script seems similarly trapped between the sublime and the ridiculous.