AVATAR (20th Century Fox)

STARS > Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Laz Alonso, Joel David Moore

DIRECTOR > James Cameron

RATING > [4/5]


Ho-lee shit. Those words are probably just as effective, if not more so, in conveying what’s about to be written here, but filing a two-word review of this much-ballyhooed sci-fi extravaganza would probably be frowned upon. (Still, feel free to stop here if that covers it for you.) Thing is, a not-insignificant portion of the country will probably see Avatar no matter what the reviews say because A) It’s written and directed by James Cameron, aka The Guy Who Made That Movie About Leo DiCaprio And Kate Winslet On That Sinking Ship (plus Aliens, plus the first two Terminator flicks); B) People who “just loved” Titanic don’t generally read movie reviews; and C) Dude, it’s in stereoscopic IMAX 3D. For those reasons–and the fact that it won’t take long for word to spread that it’s quite possibly the most visually dazzling film ever made–Avatar will likely be one of the top-grossing films of all time.

The plotline is basic enough. It’s 2154, and Earth’s energy crisis is such that humans–led by the U.S. military, like that’s a surprise–have taken to mining a rare energy-producing mineral called Unobtainium (nice, right?) on a distant and dangerous jungle planet called Pandora. Four-and-a-half light years from Earth, Pandora is inhabited by a race of blue, 10-foot nature children called the Na’vi, who are generally less than psyched about human encroachment on their native soil. As the two races stand poised on the brink of war, a diplomatic program is founded upon the use of avatars, Na’vi bodies grown in giant test tubes that are physically and mentally linked to human controllers. The success of this diplomacy rests on the shoulders of a disabled U.S. marine named Jake Sully (Worthington), who must ingratiate himself among the Na’vi–as a Na’vi–and convince them to leave their territory before the military destroys it.

Despite the somewhat transparent plot, viewers who were justifiably prepared for a colossal, steaming load of vapid Michael Bay-on-3D-alien-steroids dog-shit just might be pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, Avatar’s flashy, state-of-the-art visuals are overwhelming-so much so that they often (but not always) distract from the film’s cloying predictability and intermittent gaps in logic. Pandora’s vast assortment of hyper-colored horticulture, floating mountains and indigenous wildlife (hammerhead triceratops, tropical pterodactyls, six-legged equines, etc.) provide the backdrop for retina-pounding action sequences that seem to lunge off the screen thanks to ultra-advanced technological trickery. Still, for all of Avatar’s fantastic 3D-CG-HD-IMAX prestidigitation, Cameron manages to weave a not-so-thinly veiled allegory for America’s ill-fated military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan (there are conspicuous dialogic references to “shock and awe” and “preemptive strikes”) and Vietnam (fighting a severely underestimated enemy in a jungle that doubles as said enemy’s native terrain), not to mention a futuristic reenactment of early U.S. settlers’ systematic overrun and murder of the Native Americans, with all its attendant land-rape and utter disregard for the cycles of nature. All of this encapsulated in a 2-plus hour CGI epic with an overarching theme of technology versus nature vis-à-vis hyper-athletic, overgrown Smurfs and our own ever-arrogant race.

That Cameron managed to cram this much relevant socio-political and cultural commentary into one film ends up being more impressive than forced, though at times it’s undeniably the latter. But it could also be argued that most anti-war and pro-environment morality tales, rote and timeworn as they may seem in this day and age, have never really been taken to heart by the American public, and thus should be repeated as often as possible. Besides, there are a lot of ways Cameron could have fucked this up royally–the film is rife with not-so-subtle racial implications in that the four main Na’vi characters are portrayed by three black actors (Saldana, Alonso and CCH Pounder) and a Cherokee actor (Wes Studi)–so perhaps it’s enough to be thankful that the director’s messages are largely admirable.

Beyond that, Cameron’s stupefying optical breakthroughs pose many intriguing questions about the future of filmmaking, particularly Hollywood’s ongoing triumph of style over substance. Avatar is the first movie we’ve seen that so successfully distracts from its own underlying themes that it’s almost impressive that Cameron found the wherewithal to provide any moral underpinning at all. Given its likely audience (young males), Avatar might even be an effective piece of anti-war propaganda were it not for the fact that most viewers will likely come away with an overpowering sense of visual awe rather than any enhanced feelings of outrage at U.S. foreign policy or renewed regret about our slash-and-burn culture’s role in the decimation of the environment and/or the Native American race.

Of course, sci-fi blockbusters have already become so visually beguiling that many filmmakers long ago dispensed with message, instead relying upon technology to showcase new types of explosions, aliens and virtual warfare in the service of shilling iPhones or merchandise tie-ins. Despite his ever-increasing clout, Cameron is in no position to reset the tone of the industry in that department, and it’s not in his self-interest, anyway. Avatar toys are already a reality and a string of sequels is inevitable. But at least Cameron has a message–which is more than anyone can say for Michael Bay or the current incarnation of George Lucas–and a fairly decent one at that. Naturally, that doesn’t mean one can’t appreciate Avatar on a purely visual level. On that score, we can only echo the inevitable refrain of audiences everywhere: Ho-lee shit. –J. Bennett

Check out an AP-exclusive Q&A with actor Joel David Moore about his experience filming Avatar.