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King of the 3-D World

MOVIE REVIEW
Avatar (2009)

AVTR-326
WETA/20th Century Fox

James Cameron doesn’t make movies. He makes events. And “Avatar,” which comes hyped with a much speculated upon budget of around $500 million and the wonders of the filmmaker’s stereoscopic 3-D camera system, is perhaps his biggest yet.

With great power comes great responsibility — as another big-budget icon noted — and great responsibility brings the weight of enormous expectations. Well, ignore the bad buzz spurred by the mediocre first trailer and forgo your cynicism. The movie works spectacularly well, providing a vibrant experience on par with those provided by the legendary blockbusters of Hollywood’s past.

Mr. Cameron, adept at forging new cinematic frontiers, does so again in his depiction of the extraordinarily detailed Pandora, the alien world that serves as the picture’s setting. It’s a complete portrait of a new planet with its own complex ecosystem, large menacing creatures and glistening natural wonders. Rather than a half-baked reconfiguration of more standard otherworldly movie environments, it exists within a time and space all its own as a place imbued with unique, imaginative detail.

It is home to the Na'vi, a race of tall, thin cat-like beings with distinctly human features whose holiest spot sits above a rich deposit of unobtainium, the most valuable mineral in the universe. So, naturally, humans have made it there, establishing a base called Hell’s Gate, from which a young business type (Giovanni Ribisi) oversees an uneasy truce between the scientific community headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and the military presence fronted by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Into this world comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine. He’s recruited to join Dr. Augustine’s avatar program, in which sleeping subjects are neurologically wired to Na'vi bodies comprised of equal amounts human and Na'vi DNA, which they use to walk out in the open, perform experiments and possibly attempt interaction with the skeptical locals. On one routine journey the Na'vi, Jake — his legs restored to him — gets separated from the pack. He’s rescued from a near death situation by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a distrusting Na'vi, and so begins Jake’s gradual immersion into their deeply foreign milieu.

The core of the narrative follows a standard cross-cultural through line, complete with star-crossed lovers and scenes of Jake learning the freeing ways of the Na'vi. It adds to it the specter of the distinctly American form of exploitation, the clash between scientific and militaristic interests and — most intriguingly — the psychological torment expended by an individual who so routinely undergoes vast shifts between identities and worlds. The ensemble, despite being faced with the burdens of performance capture and the rest of the filmmaker's technology, give credible, deeply-felt performances. At the same time, Mr. Cameron instills it all with an appropriately moderated blend of spectacle and emotion, combining scenes of adventurous exploration with a tender romance and the darker sadistic undercurrents inherent in the humans' intrusion on Pandora’s harmonious purity.

The real reason to see the picture, though, is to experience the groundbreaking new world the filmmaker has wrought. He’s solved the dead-eyed, subhuman look that’s torpedoed past motion-capture experiments and presented a seamless, indistinguishable blending of sets and C.G.I. in the transitions between Hell’s Gate and Pandora. Every frame of his 3-D imagery is crammed with impressive deep focus detail; as Quaritch addresses the base, for example, it’s possible to make out the distinct facial expressions and other characteristics of the tiniest background figure. “Avatar” gets the closest any movie has to fulfilling the format’s fundamental mission of creating a new, immersive way of looking at movies.

Mr. Cameron does everything bigger than everyone else and, as per his famous “I’m the king of the world” Oscar-night declaration, he can come across as a technologically-obsessed egotist. But “Avatar,” similar to “Titanic” and other movies before it, shows him to be as gifted a storyteller as an innovator, earning a place at the fore of big-budget Hollywood alongside Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. In his aptitude for blending the new with the old, for mixing groundbreaking technology with the most deep-rooted, classical narratives, though, he may just be in a class all his own.

AVATAR

Opened on Dec. 18 in the United States and on Dec. 17 in Britain.

Written and directed by James Cameron; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Mr. Cameron, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin; music by James Horner; visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; production designers, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; produced by Mr. Cameron and Jon Landau; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 46 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Col. Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Carter Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm), C C H Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan) and Laz Alonso (Tsu’Tey).

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