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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

Avatar  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by James Cameron.
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao.
2009 – 165 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, sensuality and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 11, 2009.
In bringing "Avatar" to fruition, writer-director James Cameron (whose last feature film was 1997's "Titanic") has been down a long, painstaking, time-consuming road. He penned the screenplay nearly fifteen years ago, but could go no further until technology caught up with his vision. Now, after dedicating the better part of the last four and a half years of his life to the project, it is finally complete. A hybrid of live-action and lifelike computer-generated characters and settings (shown in theaters in expansive if unnecessary 3-D), "Avatar" has been touted as a game-changing, $300-million motion picture set to revolutionize modern cinema. That is a lofty claim, indeed, and one that is never fulfilled. If some movies get lucky with their serendipitous timeliness (recent example: Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," a slice-of-life about corporate downsizing in economically troubled times), others unfortunately miss their sell-by window of freshness. "Avatar" falls into the latter category, an amalgamation of now-derivative sci-fi plot elements and trite thematic sermonizing.

When his twin brother, a well-studied researcher, dies, paralyzed war vet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes his place amongst a crew stationed on distant alien moon Pandora. It is here that he will participate in the Avatar program, wherein each person is able to mentally control the physical body of their assigned avatar, grown from a cocktail of human and alien DNA. In his new, ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned body, Jake can walk again, breathe outdoors, and is a dead-ringer for the primitive Na'vi tribe. Alongside head scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and fellow comrade Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Jake is to study his surroundings and gather data on a valuable mineral within the moon's jungles. The more time he spends in his alternate body, however, the more Jake becomes attached to it, his feelings of connection only intensifying when he meets and falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi. Just as the civilization has welcomed him as one of their own, trouble lurks in the form of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an environmentally-unconscious radical who has instructed his men to start tearing the forest (and its resources) to shreds. If not stopped, this could spell the end for not only the Na'vis, but every living creature on Pandora.

"Avatar" is positively dripping with ambition, but the film is like a gung-ho party guest who has arrived entirely too late and missed all the festivities. Despite having been worked on long before the animated "Battle for Terra" was even a pipe dream, "Avatar" has arrived after the fact. The similarities between the two are sizable, to say the least, right down to the preachily handled message that even Al Gore would deem overbearing. Heck, long before "Battle for Terra," there was 1992's "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest," which boiled down to the same elementary lessons. In its story of humans "driving" synthetic bodies in the real world, "Avatar" has been beaten again by 2009's "Gamer." And, in the long section where Jake explores his foreign surroundings of forests, cliffs and waterfalls and is chased around by a cavalcade of alien creatures, all that one is reminded of is how much more thrilling and involving it was in 2005's "King Kong."

As eye candy, "Avatar" has been created with much love and care. With the possible exception of the other animal creatures, conceptualized and designed in garish colors resembling a sick rainbow, the world of Pandora is immersive and mystical. Even more impressive are the virtually photo-realistic treatment of the Na'vi people. The stark, raw emotions of terror, anguish and sadness that read across their faces is the one effects element that stands as a step forward in the evolution of CGI-rendered beings. The rest, while looking good, fails to inspire much awe or suggest that history is being made. To this day, the groundbreaking work of 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and 1993's "Jurassic Park" is more impressive.

Take away the snazzy technology and what is left? Precious little. From a writing and storytelling standpoint, "Avatar" is a considerable failure. The aforementioned plot strikes one as unoriginal. The characters—all of them, human and Na'vi—are underdeveloped, never reaching close to three dimensions and falling into "good" and "bad" types. The all-important love story between Jake and Neytiri lacks substance and charisma, not even a faint shadow of what James Cameron achieved between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Titanic." Spending most of their time running across trees branches and hopping around on logs, Jake and Neytiri share no more than a dozen or so lines of dialogue with each other and romantically connect for no other reason than because the script demands it. In other words, their bond is about as genuine as press-on nails.

There is one dramatically effective scene where a tree held in reverence by the Na'vi tribe is destroyed before their horrified eyes, countless lives of their people taken with it, but it is the exception in a movie that does not involve the viewer or successfully get the audience to feel anything. We do not properly get to know them and so no reason is provided for why we should care. Instead, from almost beginning to end, the film takes on a monotonously repetitive rhythm, the action boiling down to a lot of flying around in the air on the backs of creatures, shooting arrows, giant tractors bulldozing trees, and military helicopters firing ammo. Never is director Cameron able to elicit tension. By the chaotic, almost never-ending third act, it has become a bunch of empty, thrill-free spectacle resulting in nothing memorable to grasp hold of.

If the cinema is first and foremost about ratcheting up emotions within the viewer, then "Avatar" has not done its job. Sam Worthington (2009's "Terminator Salvation"), Sigourney Weaver (2008's "Baby Mama") and an especially striking Zoe Saldana (2009's "Star Trek") give it their all, but they are let down by James Cameron's negligible pen. Here, he has become so enraptured with his flights of computerized fancy that he has lost track of the film's very substance and soul. Without that, and without much in the way of novel imagination, all that is left are some pretty pictures and a well-meaning, if sanctimonious, advertisement for Greenpeace. Unfortunate though it is, "Avatar" isn't even worth a fraction of its built-in hype.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman