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Movie review

Reviewed by Don Speziale

As jaw-dropping experiences go, James Cameron’s audacious return to feature-filmmaking, “Avatar,” will pretty much drop your jaw as far as it can possibly go. A visual triumph on just about every level, you can’t help but feel the bar on special effects wizardry has been raised.

“Top this, suckers!” you can almost hear Cameron yelling out in every gorgeous frame.

Much will be studied, written and dissected about the techniques the Director utilized to create this film, and many will be studiously trying to recapture the “gee whiz” effect the movie had on this viewer. Something tells me they all will fail. When it comes down to it, love him or hate him, James Cameron can honestly be called a visionary Director.

It’s too bad, then, to report that the frame holding up this thrilling treat is rickety at best. 

One of Cameron’s greatest ambitions as an action-film Director is to engage your heart in the story in such a way that, when the showdowns occur, you’ll be emotionally connected and genuinely involved in the characters’ fates. Unlike Michael Bay’s films, which exist solely to beat your senses to a pulp, Cameron insists that you invest a bit of your soul to get the full effect of what he’s trying to tell you.

Combining elements from his earlier (and I think, better) films, “Aliens” and “The Abyss,” “Avatar” tells the story of Jake Sully, a wheelchair-bound ex-Marine whose twin brother was killed just before he was to embark on a mission involving a trip to the planet Pandora.

Pandora is the home of the Na’vi people, a blue-skinned race who exist as one with their environment. Pandora also holds a massive storehouse of the stupidly-named “Unobtainium,” a precious metal worth millions. Of course, the mission centers around getting the Na’vi to relocate so the metal can be mined. But the Na’vi are a proud tribe, and won’t easily give up their land.

Because Jake has the same genetic makeup as his twin brother, he is sent in his place. Once there, Jake is introduced to Dr. Grace Augustine (played by the ever-wonderful Sigourney Weaver) and his “avatar,” a creature that combines elements of human DNA with the Na’vi. With the use of elaborate science-fiction equipment, Jake is able to have his consciousness projected into the Na’vi body, and it isn’t long before he is running and jumping and making friends with the local tribe.

It won’t take a genius to figure out where this is all going. Will Jake make a connection with the gentle, but fierce, Na’vi? Will he be able to betray them for the promise of wealth and a new pair of legs? Will he get a bit of Na’vi nookie? I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.

Throughout all of this, your eyes will be exploding with the flawless eye candy being thrown at you. There isn’t one thing wrong with this movie in visual terms. Cameron composes each shot and set-piece with maximum impact. He is an amazing Director, carefully pacing each bit of action.

But when these characters start opening their mouths, it’s almost enough to kill the mood. Cliches abound, and the good guys are REALLY good, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. There aren’t any shades of grey.

It’s too bad because, despite its bombast, there is a lot of visual subtlety here, too. The way a gentle seed floats in the air and attaches to Sully’s avatar body, the sudden slow-motion to fully appreciate the sharp teeth of an attacking creature.

No such care is taken with the characters that inhabit this movie.

Sam Worthington is a good match for the lead, and he’s ably supported by a cast doing their best with the clunky dialogue. Stephen Lang, as the mission leader, is a standout, while Giovanni Ribisi does the “slimy corporate rat ” shtick that Paul Reiser did to much better effect in “Aliens.”

The bottom line is that this is a movie you cannot afford to miss, despite the flaws. It must be experienced on the big screen (and in 3D) to be fully appreciated. It will be the standard-bearer for special effects for quite a while to come. That it doesn’t fully work on all levels shouldn’t hold you back from seeing something entirely “new.”

AVATAR; Dir/Scr: James Cameron; Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver. 2hrs, 42 mins. Rated PG-13