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Sunday, April 25, 2010

AVATAR -- DVD review by porfle

I missed AVATAR (2009) at the theater, which is hardly surprising since I rarely go to the theater anymore unless I'm having my house sprayed or something. In a way that's good since, with the release of James Cameron's blockbuster sci-fi epic on DVD, I can now judge it without being bowled over by the whoopty-doo big-screen 3D experience. And as far as I'm concerned, it pretty much lives up to all the hype. Unless you simply have an aversion to James Cameron films, which I don't.

Everyone probably knows the story by now: in the future, a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) travels to the distant planet of Pandora and takes his deceased twin brother's place in a research project aimed at studying an indigenous alien race called the Na'vi. To do so, team members such as Jake, Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), and crotchety project leader Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) mind-jump into cloned Na'vi bodies ("avatars") which also contain their own DNA (which is why Jake was chosen to take over for his deceased twin).

Jake gets more than he bargained for when circumstances bring him into direct contact with a Na'vi tribe which is initially hostile toward the intruder. He falls in love with the tribal chief's daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who has been charged with teaching him their ways, and learns to appreciate their amazing physical and spiritual connection with nature,eventually becoming accepted as one of them. But a greedy corporate executive, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), wants the Na'vi off their mineral-rich holy ground and tasks his ex-military security force, led by the extremely hostile Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to get the job done even if it means using deadly force.

AVATAR is James Cameron's love letter to tree-huggers everywhere, and his message does resonate within the context of the film (although after awhile you just get a little tired of how perfect the Na'vi are compared to us horrible humans--even their deity is realer than ours). The familiar story contains elements of, among other things, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kipling's "The Jungle Book", Disney's POCOHANTAS, DANCES WITH WOLVES, LITTLE BIG MAN, and, of course, a certain story about some starcrossed lovers named Rose and Jack.

But while Cameron once again gets to indulge the romantic side which bubbled to the surface of his roiling id in TITANIC (all that's missing, unfortunately, is a "cry moment" at the end), what really gets his moviemaking mojo in gear is the massive battle between the humans and the Na'vi which takes up the latter third of the film. Huge warships and helicopters maneuver around the floating mountains, firing incendiary bombs and other nasty things into the heart of the Na'vi habitat, while ground forces in mechanical power-suits (which are like a combination of similar creations in both ALIENS and MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS) do furious battle with thousands of bow-wielding Na'vi warriors. These battle scenes are spectacular and are my favorite part of the movie. I suspect they're Cameron's favorite part, too.

The SPFX are consistently amazing, providing the viewer with some of the best eye-candy to ever grace the screen. We've already come a long way from, for example, those beautiful vistas of Naboo in THE PHANTOM MENACE--Cameron's alien planet is filled with bizarre flora and fauna amidst a kaleidescope of vibrant colors (especially at night when everything turns luminescent), and looks like a conglomeration of Yes album-cover artist Roger Dean's wildest fantasies brought to life. The flying reptiles ridden by the Na'vi are especially impressive, although some of the other forest creatures look somewhat less convincing than one might expect.

The Na'vi themselves are the last word in CGI motion-capture technology, their performances every bit as expressive as those of the live actors. Worthington, Weaver, and Moore are, by necessity, recognizable in their alien form (it's really fun seeing Weaver's face on one of these things), while the faces of the native characters played by Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, and CCH Pounder are creations of the FX artists which allow us to get to know them as individuals without any preconceptions.

Sam Worthington is good as the "stranger in a strange land" hero, making a convincing transition from dedicated Marine to Na'vi convert (some would say traitor), and Zoe Saldana is very appealing as Neytiri. Sigourney Weaver is her usual awesome self as Dr. Augustine, although for someone who's supposed to be a nicotine addict she smokes a cigarette like she had a fishing worm dangling out of her mouth. The versatile Giovanni Ribisi is hilarious as the cartoonishly greedy, self-obsessed "unobtanium" (THE CORE, anyone?) tycoon Parker Selfridge, a kindred soul to ALIENS' Carter Burke. My favorite, though, is equally versatile Stephen Lang (MANHUNTER, TOMBSTONE) as the quintessential hard-ass military ogre, Quaritch, who's itching for a bloody showdown with the Na'vi "hoss-tiles" regardless of provocation or lack thereof. And lest I forget, Michelle Rodriguez makes the most of her role as a spunky military pilot who sympathizes with the scientists.

The DVD from 20th-Century Fox is a barebones affair unless you consider chapter selections and subtitles to be "special features." Not surprisingly, a super-duper edition is in the works for later this year. If you can't wait to own it, though, and simply want the movie itself, this will do. Image and sound quality are very good as you might expect.

So, AVATAR is a colorful, fanciful comment on the displacement of indigenous populations by encroaching interlopers, the destruction of the rain forests, U.S. military intervention into other countries, etc., etc. I don't care about any of that stuff. Cameron can exorcise his white liberal guilt and make big statements reminding us that racism=bad and the environment=good, and have the greenest mansion, land yachts, and private jet in Hollywood for all I care. I just happen to get a big kick out of the massive, powerhouse feats of action-adventure cinema this often underestimated and derided filmmaker manages to successfully pull off at great risk and expense (in addition to his earlier, lower-budgeted stuff, of course). While I don't love the guy with a fanboy's zeal (and am, quite frankly, glad I don't ever have to be around him in real life, ever), I find his movies visually sumptuous and incredibly entertaining, which fits quite nicely into one of the most vital niches of my movie lover's soul.

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