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12.16.09

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Phaedra

IT'S NOT EASY BEING BLUE: Neytiri (ZoŽ Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) get back to nature on another world in 'Avatar.'

Pandora's Boxed In

A strange world tries to resist the invasion of earthlings in James Cameron's 'Avatar'

By Richard von Busack


BOTH AN eyeful and a brain drain, Avatar is like meeting a gorgeous, high-cheekboned fashion model who has just had a lobotomy. James Cameron's latest caps a year that was to animation what 1939 was to studio films—the increased color range and delicacy of CGI were essential to 2009's banquet of 2-D and 3-D animation, and Avatar's visuals are part of that triumph.

Despite what's been claimed, though, you know you're watching animated characters. Motion capture doesn't always mean motion release. The timing appears off and the facial expressions oversimplified. It's clear that we're looking at synthespians.

In the future, an unnamed Very Big Corporation is shipping mercenaries to the planet Pandora, where 9-foot-tall, blue-skinned noble savages called Na'vi live in a phosphorescent forest full of saurian beasts. The earthling invaders have excavated a vast open-pit mine, guarded by mercenaries.

Jake (Michael J. Fox avatar Sam Worthington) is the paraplegic brother of a dead soldier who has agreed to take his brother's place in an experimental program. The idea is to link Jake's brain to a genetically engineered Na'vi shell; the program is under the direction of a chain-smoking biologist (Sigourney Weaver, no help). And—after the usual rituals—Jake becomes a member of this peace-loving people's tribe, helped by the space Pocahontas Neytiri, played by a motion-captured ZoŽ Saldana.

This princess sports giraffe ears and spots, brandy-snifter-size golden eyes and a literal Barbie-doll physique, with an elongated torso and teeny hips. Wide-set eyes are essential to movie glamour—if you can't tell what a person is looking at, they are mysterious. The Na'vi's long Zardoz-like braids conceal filaments; they can plug into the plants and animals of Pandora to commune with their spirits.

Jake spends his days learning Na'vi lore, reverence for "Eywa," the mother goddess of them all, and how to pray for the spirits of animals he skewers. But he is also reminded of his duties by a Marine colonel (Stephen Lang) who proudly wears his scarred face as a reminder of how the Na'vi can kill you—and also that scar-faced people are always evil. The plan to relocate the Na'vi will include deadly force.

Plotwise, Avatar is a blue-dyed remake of Dances With Wolves. Politically, Avatar has resonance; it fits in with our horror of redwood and rainforest crunching and the terror that no one will ever be able to fix the environment on Earth.

There are certain references to the Forever War in Afghanistan and guilt at the terrible age of colonization. In actual history, there are shades to this tragedy: there are usually wars between tribes, and conquerors always use disaffected tribespeople as intermediaries. Cameron glosses over this potential plot thickener. Why go to all the trouble to infiltrate the Na'vi by disguising as them, especially when it's clear to them right away that the humans are "Dreamwalkers"—fake Na'vi?

Fans who insist that there's no reason to make an intelligent story to go with superior graphics hold back the cause of science fiction. Umberto Eco wrote that Casablanca wasn't a movie, it was the movies. Similarly, Avatar isn't a movie, it is the tragedy of the movies: a thrilling technology capable of uniting the world in the hands of types who can't see past the good-guys, bad-guys rites of a playground.


Movie Times AVATAR (PG-13; 162 min.), directed and written by James Cameron, photographed by Mauro Fiore and Vince Pace and starring Sam Worthington and ZoŽ Saldana, opens Friday countywide.


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