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Awesome visuals compensate for the pedestrian story

Am I blue: Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake-the-avatar (Sam Worthington) make a connection.

Yes, the poster and the previews and the endless hype make James Cameron's life-on-a-strange-planet sci-fi adventure Avatar seem silly. Because none of those things can deliver the movie's trump card: When you're watching this computer-animated film in 3-D, it looks freakin' amazing, at times exhilaratingly so.

Which is good, because the plot is fairly straightforward -- a warmed-over Star Trek episode, juiced up with bits from dozens of other movies you've already seen. There are no great insights to parse or twists to keep track of; it's mostly a blank canvas for Cameron's lavish visuals.

In 2154, a paraplegic Marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) is sent to Pandora, a far-off planet where humans have a mining operation. To keep the indigenous population, known as the Na'vi, at bay, a company scientist (Sigourney Weaver) uses diplomatic avatars -- humans who lock in their bodies at base, while their brains go roving around Pandora in Na'vi bodies. Naturally, the company's military arm would just like to blow the Na'vi up and strip-mine in peace.

While roaming Pandora's forests, Jake-the-avatar is captured by a tribe of Na'vi, and after some fast-talking intercessions, becomes the trainee of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a well-connected warrior. Before you can say "going native," Jake discovers the Na'vi are peaceful, spiritual people, deeply in touch with their natural environment, which is threatened by greedy humans; falls in love with Neytiri; and leads a battle against the mine's military enforcers.

If the plot is familiar, then so are the characters: hero, hero's lady-love and co-warrior, hero's techie sidekicks, useful scientist, corporate tool, square-jawed military hard-ass, hero's-rival-turned-wingman and mystical old granny. (At least Cameron didn't shoehorn in a cute dog-like alien creature.)

At over two-and-a-half hours, Avatar is too long -- there's a lot of expository drag upfront, and with such a slim story, plenty of opportunity for tightening. But once the film gets its groove on after about 30 minutes, the dazzling visuals suffice for entertainment, easily smoothing over the weaker plot sequences.

Avatar is screening around town in a variety of 3-D options (including IMAX), as well as a 2-D version. Seeing it in 3-D will cost a couple of extra bucks, but it's likely not worth seeing in any other format. This is the most lifelike, and spectacular, 3-D film yet.

While scenes shot at the base camp among humans occasionally have the layer-upon-layer depth quality of a View-Master reel, Pandora's exteriors really show the majesty of Cameron's dedication to artificial realism. The CGI work in this film is seamless, with more than half the film being digitally created. (Humans play themselves, of course, but lots of unseen actors, such as Saldana, were rigged for motion-capture.)

The depth and density of Pandora's vistas is incredible, as are the close-ups, where every leaf shimmers just so. The scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous -- from floating mountains (a really cool idea for a 3-D movie) shrouded in mist to lush jungles that light up at night with iridescent plants.

The humanoid Na'vi look like a cross between a cat and a member of the Blue Man Group. To me, there was something a little off about how the Na'vi moved (like I'd know), but Cameron has solved the worst drawback of animated creatures: the eyes. These aren't the dead glass-eye orbs most animated people have; they are as bright, moist, reflective and expressive as any "real" living creature's.

To his credit, Cameron uses 3-D organically, and without gimmicks -- nothing bounces off the screen into viewers' faces simply because it can. (During one scene, I did unconsciously reach up to wave away ash floating in the air.) When Jake and the Na'vi take to the air on their flying dragons (don't laugh), you'll believe every dizzying swoop through the vast canyons. But look closely: Watch the light play across the taut dragon skin, and when the dragon's wing catches the spray of a nearby waterfall, see that same light transformed by the tiny droplets of water.

Avatar reputedly cost $230 million dollars to make, making it the most expensive feature ever produced. That's a lot of money to tell a two-bit story -- but, I suppose, cheaper than visiting another planet on your own. They laughed at Cameron when he made a wildly expensive romance about a boat sinking; they laughed when he turned his sights to a wildly expensive green-screen fantasy adventure about blue humanoids. But that noise you hear now is millions of delighted movie-goers wearing silly plastic glasses saying, "Whoa, coooooool."

( in 2-D)

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