It's impossible to fully consider James Cameron's long-in-the-making eco-opus "Avatar" without examining the film's technological wonders and storytelling blunders separately. The picture Mr. Cameron presents to us may be a real achievement, visually, but the story is a total rehash.
Pandora, where the film is set, is a dangerous place: The air is unbreathable, and the forests that cover the planet are filled with foul-looking beasts intent on killing anything they come across. In order to navigate the jungle — and better learn how to interact with the indigenous Na'vi, a race of 9-foot-tall catlike humanoids — humans must upload their consciousness into test-tube-born-and-bred Na'vi bodies known as avatars.
Quadriplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) ships out to Pandora to fill in for his recently deceased twin brother. If he capably fulfills his duties — which include spying on the science team for which he is to provide security and on the Na'vi who come to accept him as one of their own — "the Company" will repair his spine free of charge.
The Company is a malevolent force on Pandora: It is strip-mining the planet in search of "unobtanium," a rare mineral that goes for millions of dollars a pound on the open market. Unfortunately for the Na'vi, there's a rich vein of the stuff under the giant tree in which they live, and the Company will stop at nothing to get it.
Jake is happy to betray the Na'vi at first, but he becomes conflicted after falling in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a princess who saves his life during his first venture into the forest. Growing ever more involved in the mystic ways of these noble savages, Jake is forced to make a choice: Should he help the Na'vi or aid the military in waging a genocidal campaign in order to pursue his own materialistic goals?
Anyone who has seen "Dances With Wolves" or "Quigley Down Under" or "The Last Samurai" will know the answer to that question.
Some will be angered by the facile anti-business, pro-eco-terrorism plot Mr. Cameron has constructed, but that's the least of the audience's worries. Far worse is the utterly predictable — and, at 161 minutes, seemingly interminable — way in which the movie unfolds.
But as old-hat and even, for stretches, boring as the storytelling in "Avatar" may be, the visuals that bring this modern marvel to life are stunning, if not quite the groundbreaking achievement we have been promised for the past few years. Shot with a camera rig invented by Mr. Cameron to take full advantage of the 3-D effect, "Avatar" almost always succeeds at seamlessly integrating live-action actors and computer-generated imagery.
The Na'vi are as realistic as can be expected of blue, 9-foot bipedal cats covered in bioluminescent spots. When interacting with each other, they look almost photorealistic.
As for the 3-D work, the steadicam, panoramic type shots are beautiful. When, on the other hand, the pace picks up and the camera moves in a jerkier, faux-verite style, the illusion occasionally breaks. Still, quibbles aside, the action sequences are, for the most part, well-choreographed and entirely convincing endeavors that rarely look fake.
"Avatar" represents easily the best use a live-action picture has made of 3-D; it's too bad Mr. Cameron couldn't come up with a story and script worthy of his spectacle.
CREDITS: Directed and written by James Cameron
RUNNING TIME: 161 minutes
WEB SITE: http://www.avatarmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS