“Avatar” Dances With Aliens

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Y’know how no matter what art museum you visit there is always one room you enter that has a giant painting taking up an entire wall? You’re reaction is generally, why? Well, that’s how “Avatar,” director James Cameron’s often brilliant but overlong sci-fi extravaganza, initially strikes you.

Two-thirds of a wall would have sufficed quite nicely.

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The 11-year-old me might have appreciated that excessive one-third, consisting mostly of repetitive war scenes that display the very latest in FX gewgaws and gadgetry now available to filmmakers. Whereas the14-year-old me would be much more enthralled by the rather brazen poli sci allegory that weaves its way through the glitz.

Think “Dances With Wolves” (1990) melded with any number of anti-establishment flicks of the 1960s and a dash of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984) thrown in for its prescience. Yep, our sociopolitical system, military industrial complex that it is, gets another merciless drubbing, perhaps its most fanciful and unapologetic yet.

The unmitigated exercise in self-hatred takes our empire to task, deeming it wrongheaded and evil, but stops just short of saying its name. Suffice it to note that the military forces who’ve come to conquer the moon Pandora and glean all its valuable unobtanium, no matter how that affects the indigenous Na’vi, are Earthlings.

Riding gallantly to the cause, though he doesn’t know it at first, is Corporal Jake Sully. Hardly the obvious hero due to an unfortunate war injury, the Marine was rendered a paraplegic. His thoughts as he travels in cryogenic state to this moon of Polyphemus bring us up to speed. His twin, an avatar driver, was killed. He will replace him.

So here’s what an avatar is. It’s really quite cool, though as employed here by the invading powers it’s just a technologically advanced way of speaking with forked tongue. Combining human matter with Na’vi stuff creates a hybrid of the two. If biologically linked to this avatar, a human, dormant in a large, MRI-like tube, can control it.

It’s expensive. That’s why Jake’s aboard. Otherwise, the avatar he soon inhabits would have died with his DNA-alike brother. Pity is, while scientists like Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine had idealistic reasons for creating the program, The Man seized the science as a way to gain the trust of the blue-skinned folk he wished to conquer.

At the occupying force’s mission control on Pandora, an unholy alliance exists between Big Business, represented by Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker Selfridge, and the army that does its bidding, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch’s frothing-at-the-mouth gyrene. Dr. Augustine’s mostly altruistic, scientific support team is the misled, necessary stepchild.

Landing in this metaphoric primer on what’s wrong with humankind, Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is just trying to survive. It is the year 2154. While rich folk with his disability could afford a remedying operation, it’s not going to happen on a Marine’s salary. But then an opportunity to make a deal with the devil presents itself.

Cozying up to Jake, Quaritch (Stephen Lang) informs that the young soldier, whose avatar will shortly be walking among the Na’vi, could be helpful in a reconnaissance sort of way. No one need know of their arrangement. Just come back with useful info that will help subjugate the natives and he’ll see to it that the corporal gets his working legs back.

Thus, descending into the breach, first with Dr. Augustine holding his hand, Jake is introduced to this ultimate rain forest. But the inveterate rebel strays away to learn that Eden is not without its dangers. Reminiscent of the gladiator/prehistoric monster/ Steve Reeves films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he is soon fending off all manner of charging beast.

Fighting valiantly but terribly outnumbered, his moxie and spirit are not lost on a quietly curious observer who presently comes to his rescue. Firing poison arrows one, two, three is Zoe Saldana’s Princess Neytiri, the Na’vi’s answer to the huntress Diana. Before long, she is his tutor of all things spiritual and unspoiled. They become an item.

Expect the usual Romeo and Juliet convolutions to emanate from this cross-species affaire de coeur, hyper-accentuated as full-blown conflict erupts between the unwelcome visitors and the home team. Here, though the lifelike avatars and Na’vi have already more than impressed us, director Cameron shows off all his new techno toys.

The redundancy is tiresome. But happily, after the electric light ‘n’ shrapnel show settles and our interest is regained, the cautionary message remains intact. Though stopping short of having a foreword by Al Gore, and oxymoronic by virtue of its commercial heft, “Avatar” might very well help our young life forms see the forest from the trees.

“Avatar,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation release directed by James Cameron and stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. Running time: 162 minutes


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