Written and Directed by James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi.
Run time: 161 minutes
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13

James Cameron has long been a paradox: an obsessive gear head consistently pushing the technological boundaries of the medium, cursed with a sentimental streak that’s a mile wide; and, an authoritarian, sometimes abusive, taskmaster who’s an irrepressible romantic at heart. His latest, much anticipated sci-fi,  3-D extravaganza, Avatar, carries forward this dubious incongruity, marrying revolutionary technical innovation with  cringingly bad dialogue, a string of clichés and repackaged elements from other films (Alien, Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Terrence Malick’s rendering of the Pocahontas tale, The New World, come to mind) to produce a largely humorless movie that plays like the sensitive white man-goes-native saga, Dances with Wolves in Outer Space.

It has to be said that Cameron is surpassed only by George Lucas in his flat writing and wooden direction of actors, who are, after all, superfluous in a spectacle like this one, a mere platform for a melding of awesome digital effects, performance capture, animation and live action. If only half the energy that went into imagining and realizing the wonderment on display had been invested in creating a riveting, original story.

The year is 2154 and the human race has ravaged the earth’s resources, forcing earth’s emissaries to pillage an outlying planet, an untouched, Eden-like paradise named Pandora, rich in an invaluable mineral, Unobtainium (I kid you not.)

Jake, a paraplegic former Marine (played by bland Australian actor, Sam Worthington, the rightful heir to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg), comes to Pandora to participate in the avatar program run by Grace (Sigourney Weaver, a good sport coping with a “what the hell am I doing here?” role). She’s the feisty top scientist on the payroll of the corporation that doesn’t mind bulldozing the land to mine the mineral but she’s genuinely interested in the culture of the native population, the Na’vi, and the secrets they hold.

Jake climbs into a coffin-like contraption and, presto (from a remote location) he’s able to enter the ambulatory body of his avatar, a hybrid/alien grown in a tank that resembles the 10 foot tall, big-footed, powder blue Na’vi. (It’s best not to question the details too closely.)

Cameron is onto an intriguing premise here, the idea of a paralyzed man released from the prison of a wounded body and, through a miracle, able to inhabit a healthy body and move freely in another world– like a dream– but Cameron quickly abandons this dramatic concept for hardware– or is it software?

Jake is sent to the jungle, overgrown with the electric neon colors of flora found in the depths of the ocean, to make contact with the Na’vi. There, he encounters raging alien/prehistoric beasts and falls for Neytiri ((Zoe Saldana), an elongated, impossibly slender warrior princess who teaches him her tribe’s harmony-with-nature ways.

He soon wants to trade his real world for the dreamy blue one and get up close and personal with Neytiri. However, his superior, a zealous, old school mercenary (Stephen Lang, doing what he can with a caricature), has other plans. He would rather use a scorched Pandora policy, blow things up and mow the suckers down in a climactic action set piece, a battle with armed robots, firepower, explosions and mass destruction.
So, creatures prone to a cocktail of New Age spirituality and Native American mysticism, a noble race possessing keys to the universe, are nearly wiped out by arrogant, war-mongering white men with their big machines in a rumble in the jungle that recalls the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam. What’s a Na’vi to do? Fight back with bows and arrows, ingenuity and a whole lot of heart, that’s what. Much chanting and inane, New Age-inspired babbling ensues but, I ask you:  Is this a fair fight? And is there any doubt as to the outcome?

The onslaught of special effects in Avatar is as relentless as the T2 in Cameron’s Terminator movie, an ironic delivery system for a Native American parable that doubles as an environmental cautionary tale. To give Cameron his due, no one can accuse him of being short on ambition and he does paint a fantastic world of visual and aural amazement. But, be warned: spending nearly three hours there can bring on a migraine, as it did for this writer.

Like Titanic, Avatar,  which reportedly was made for over $230 million, arrives amidst buzz about its skyrocketing budget, production delays and hype from Cameron about the love story at the center of his epic. But, in contrast to the former film’s swoon factor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who generated fervent repeat business among teenage and pre-teen girls, this one is a fan boy’s ecstasy, aimed at males, 14-24, a fanatical demographic that could help fuel phenomenal box office.

Anyone interested in advances in cinema may feel obliged to see Avatar to understand the changes Cameron has wrought, but absent a compelling story and full-fledged characters you can believe in, who cares?

Sura Wood


Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.