Aliens of the deep blue

James Cameron’s big-budget space fantasy is great big-screen fun

Actress Zoe Saldana is transformed into a Na’vi named Neytiri in the CG, 3-D world of James Cameron’s Avatar.

Actress Zoe Saldana is transformed into a Na’vi named Neytiri in the CG, 3-D world of James Cameron’s Avatar.

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. Directed by James Cameron. Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7 and Tinseltown. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

After his brother is murdered, disabled space marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is given an offer he can’t refuse: He can walk again if he steps into his scientist sibling’s shoes. Metaphorically, that is. The hook is that he has to take over as an avatar on the exotic planet of Pandora, which is being mined by Earthlings for some element called unobtanium (um, OK then). The avatars are genetic hybrids (between alien and native DNA) that are sent in to try to coerce the locals (11-foot-tall, blue-skinned New Agers called the Na’vi) to move along off of the biggest deposit of the valuable resource so’s that the ubiquitous evil mining outfit can roll in the bulldozers and rape the planet. Being that this is a James Cameron universe, that pretty much means that things aren’t gonna end up pretty.

But the world of Pandora itself is some pretty amazing stuff. While the Na’vi and their belief system is basically a riff off of the Gaia theory (the planet as a living organism) and other familiar New Age tenets, the background is spectacularly alien in its familiarity. Cameron obviously indulges in his long-standing fascination for the undersea flora and fauna of Earth as a starting point for his vision, matching it up with the obvious influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” (if painted by Maxfield Parrish). It’s visual eye crack.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that the narrative and dialogue are a little on the weak side. Essentially a dip in the Dances With Wolves pool, seasoned with a li’l FernGully. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

Despite his tech-happy approach, Cameron is still at heart an old-school cinematic romantic, and he allows the love story at the heart of the film breathing room. That is, until the final act when he unleashes all sorts of firepower down upon the Na’vi. And the Na’vi fire back with what resources they have at hand. It’s kind of interesting to be asked to root against mankind, especially when a lot of the narrative is loaded with 9/11 parallels. But then, this is science fiction, a genre that thrives on dangerous metaphor.

Also, mileage may vary as to the 3-D approach. Avatar doesn’t really add anything to the technology, so sometimes it becomes counterintuitive to the film. While 3-D opens up an initial giddiness of depth, the novelty quickly wears off and becomes superfluous. But with it also comes a loss of some detail, which is frustrating when Cameron opens up the vista of Pandora. Still, it’s an exhilarating ride that demands a big-screen viewing. Which begs the question: When the hell is Chico gonna get an IMAX screen?