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Avatar brings Hollywood cinema into the 21st century
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Avatar brings Hollywood cinema into the 21st century

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Avatar
Opening December 18


Watching a big screen love scene between 10-foot-tall blue aliens in 3D is officially a weird experience. And these aren't your average 10-foot-tall tall blue aliens in 3D, these aliens are the result of the most sophisticated cinematic technology ever created. And they are awesome.

Avatar is many things. It is the most expensive film ever made, according to inexact estimates by Hollywood type folks. Avatar is also classic Hollywood movie fare. There are un-conflicted villains, beautiful young heroes, wise sages, environmentally conscious natives, chase scenes, explosions, and a wondrous journey into another world. Avatar is a movie directed by an egomaniac with an overblown sense of self importance and a knack for extravagant budgets and movies that make lots of cold, hard cash.

Most importantly, Avatar is a good movie. There's nothing wrong with classic Hollywood fare as long as we don't ask too much of it. The Hollywood style is all about tight continuity editing, solid storytelling, familiar characters, and pure movie magic. Avatar is brimming with all the above.

Here's the skinny: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic war vet selected to work on the Avatar project. This corporate funded science project, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), grows human/alien hybrid avatars that will allow humans to breathe the air on Pandora, a mining outpost planet being exploited for its natural resources.

Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a humanoid race of blue 10-foot natives with a unique connection to their natural world. Sully gets his avatar and is taken into the Na'vi community to learn their ways. Sully learns some lessons and falls in love. Along the way there are lots of explosions and bad guys, and cool Pandoran flora and fauna.

It's only Cameron's eighth film as director, and he has a pretty good record with me personally. I never saw Piranha II: The Spawning (I think I actually might have seen it once in the '80s, but I was probably on a controlled substance of some sort so it doesn't count for the purposes of professional criticism). Next came the original Terminator: liked it. After that he directed Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and True Lies: liked it, liked it, liked it, and liked it.

Then came Titanic. I never understood the fascination. I'd have paid double to watch the last 20 minutes twice and be completely spared the hours and hours of Cameron masturbation that went before. It seems all of Cameron's demons that I was able to forgive in the five previous films converged in a perfect storm of bad dialogue, predictable plot devices, contrived tension, overblown music, stock characters, and surprisingly poor acting by talented actors. It was, however, cool when the ship sank.

Which bring us to number eight: Avatar - which I liked. That means I found six of the seven Cameron films that I've seen while coherent worthy of my approval. Even I find this surprising. I would still rather have lunch with David Lynch or Lynn Shelton, but apparently, I'm a Cameron fan.

The key here is that Avatar is pure movie magic. The story is familiar, but with contemporary twists that make it new and fresh. Cameron's strengths are hitting on all cylinders and it seems like somebody is whispering a little cinematic temperance in his ear. Don't get me wrong, the movie is spectacular, but in all the right ways.

Even the 3D was subtle and effective without being intrusive. Cameron stays away from ubiquitous 3D gimmicks that get tiresome quickly (anybody see the Zemeckis version of Beowulf?). The 3D is not so much a marketing stunt here as it's another cinematic tool used to transport the viewer even more completely into the fictional world.

The Na'vi (and the avatars) are gorgeous. I forgot I was watching CGI. The actors are present and their acting comes through due to cutting-edge computer magic and performance capture animation that is too boring for words, but makes for amazing images.

Worthington gets the job done as the paraplegic soldier who goes native. Weaver, as always, is a beautiful and powerful force onscreen, and Giovanni Ribisi steals scenes as the corporate hatchet man.

Special kudos are reserved for one of my new favorite actors, Zoë Saldana. Saldana shines through the CGI as the fiery Na'vi chief's daughter, Neytiri. Saldana stole my heart this summer as the revamped Uhura in the new Star Trek flick, and she doesn't let me down here.

So, Avatar is a good movie. It's a fun ride and the technology is astounding without being intrusive. And it's not as if Avatar doesn't provoke a couple of interesting intellectual questions. What's the difference between a colonizer and an occupier? What happens when the corporation becomes the government? What are the consequences of cultural hubris that assumes a less technologically advanced culture has less advanced ideas?

The problem is, we've asked these questions before. The 20th century was pretty much consumed with these questions. On the other hand, we never got real answers to them then and those answers seem like moving targets in the insanely paced, technology-driven 21st century.

But it doesn't really matter if Avatar provokes intellectual questions or not. What does matter, and what this film was built to do, is that Avatar entertains. This is an excellent example of the oft-derided Hollywood style movie, and one you absolutely must experience on the big screen.

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