Video Vault :: Avatar

2009: James Cameron
PG-13: 162 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5

“Jungle Love” : U.S. Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gets a tip on bow-hunting from Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in a scene from the first run blockbuster, “Avatar.”

The much-hyped 3D bajillion dollar extravaganza looks good and plays a bit long.

If you like a good sci-fi, this is definitely it. If you’d rather watch a relationship movie, this is definitely not for you.

We are told that the 3D technology behind “Avatar” is a new generation. That Director James Cameron poured money into this re-imagining of the 3D concept such to make his vision translate. Fine. The big thick glasses still weighed heavy on my nose after 2 hours and 42 minutes.

The story is of a human exploit on an alien world, Pandora, where an insanely valuable mineral exists in abundance.

Of course, the human way is to take what you want regardless of what sort of environ or culture already lives there. Ask the native Americans about this. Ask the middle-eastern cultures who are sitting on top of all of our oil.

In the present case, substitute a race of ten foot tall blue-skinned aliens (with tails) called the Na’vi who live and play in close communion with nature on their lush jungle world.

And what a world it is! It is like an alien Jurassic Park with life forms of all shapes and sizes from the grand down to some astonishingly cool, minute details. Many of these smaller details, along with a gigantic “home tree” and a “tree of souls,” seem to invoke some of the great Japanese animation master Hiyao Miyazake’s imaginings, especially from his masterworks “Princess Mononoke” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Some of the grandest of settings include a region where islands float in the sky like some 3D Roger Dean painting. If you remember the trippy album covers he did for the classic rock band, Yes, you might have a very good idea of the exquisite visual here.

“Inspirational”: Roger Dean’s “Floating Islands” may have been the inspiration for some of Diector James Cameron’s mind-blowing 3D imagery.

Anyway, this beautiful and strange world is the setting for what almost certainly will be a war for natural resources. In an attempt to avoid such a conflict, scientists like Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have initiated the Avatar Program.

Avatars are alien-human hybrids that allow a human to enter a pod where they can then inhabit the body of a Na’vi and go about in the world as ambassadors to learn their ways. They learn their customs and language and, according to the plan, are supposed to negotiate the creatures moving off of the mother lode of the natural resources the humans want.

Of course, the corporate interest that funds the mission comes into direct conflict with the scientific interest and guess which interest wins out? Our team of Avatars including Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) are thus caught in the middle and must choose sides.

If you’re thinking I was underwhelmed by this picture, that’s not so. It’s just that movies like this suffer from the weight of expectation. Plus, the film comes off, to me, like a collage of borrowed ideas (Roger Dean, Hiyao Miyazake and Cameron’s own vast sci-fi cannon including the “Alien” films that also drew from the fantastic art of H.R. Geiger.) that stayed in the director’s imagination and culminated here in a pretty good, especially beautiful, if long, action picture.

The film makes its center on the exciting battles that result from this clash of cultures. The human industrial and war machines are impressive. When these hard edged forms play against the colorful and archaic forms of the Na’vi and the dino-style creatures they ride and fly upon, a real war of the worlds is breathtakingly vivid.

The 3D that we began this column with helps in a big way to expose all of this. It is a sort of image that Cameron has come up with that is a deeper frame, more inviting to look deep into. It is less about the surprising gotcha moments that other 3D films seem to always use. If you put this puppy into an IMAX, it would be just like being there and worth three times the ticket price.

The themes about the futility of war and about disturbing the balance of nature would still be there too and I appreciate both, but “Avatar” is less about morals than it is about being a slam-bang blockbuster.

And nobody does blockbuster quite like James Cameron. Take in all his “Terminator” and “Alien” films, add to it “Titanic,” and then charge ahead into his other projects yet in the pipeline (“Battle Angel” for 2011 and re-workings of “Fantastic Voyage,” “Forbidden Planet,” and “Heavy Metal”) and there’s more to be excited about down the road than there is right now.

Until next time. Enjoy!

“Wild Planet”: A large scale background of the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s huge hit film, “Avatar.”

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