(2009) *** Pg-13
161 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: James Cameron. Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez.

/content/films/3658/1.jpgI'm a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but even I found James Cameron's science-fiction epic Avatar...a bit much. Yes, there's a lot of "much" in the special effects department. And in the 161-minute running time. But I refer to how Cameron takes empathy to an extreme of liberal wish fulfillment. What if you could do better than visiting an indigenous people with a notepad and a big-eyed, sensitive look? What if you could actually become one of them? If only this were a marketable opportunity, you just know that Hollywood types would be falling all over themselves to be the early adopters (for what is acting if not professional empathy?). Yes, yes, you say, but is Avatar all that and a bag of chips?

Yes*. Cameron's 3-D extravanganza features extravagant, spectacular design brought to vivid life with all the latest technology, particularly motion-capture CGI animation. Avatar flips Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by plugging in the occasional live-action element in what's primarily an animated environment inhabited by pixelated—if nearly photo-real—characters. And in its clichéd storyline, Avatar is no more sophisticated than this year's kiddie eco-fable Battle for Terra, which shares almost exactly the same story about humans who, having sucked Earth dry, intend imperiously to conquer a peaceful people and their lushly inviting home; no one will have a hard time staying ahead of this plot. Perhaps its best to take Avatar as the most expensive children's movie ever produced and promoted (at a cost well upwards of a quarter-billion dollars), the better to embrace eye candy, ignore plotholes, and mitigate eye-rolling at the bombastic dialogue and thematic bluntness of it all.

In 2154, a still war-torn Earth remains desperately dependent on rare natural resources. Oil is out and the laughably named "unobtainium" is in. The only place to obtain unobtainium is the far-flung moon Pandora, where an elaborate industrial-military complex has set up shop to drive out the native Na'vi, literally uproot their tree-based culture, and strip-mine the precious element. At least for now, their tactic is to learn the ways of the Na'vi through the use of test-tube bred "avatars" enabling humans—through the use of remote-control—to fuse with a Na'vi body and walk among the lithe, ten-foot blue people, learning their ways. The ostensible plan is to win the "hearts and minds" of the natives, convincing them voluntarily to leave their home so it can be plundered by outsiders.

The idea is ludicrous on its face, so it's no surprise that the scientific researchers led by Dr. Grace Augustine (hard-bitten-with-a-heart-of-gold Sigourney Weaver) view with suspicion their corporate middle manager (Giovanni Ribisi) and military strategist/rapacious jarhead Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who wears his Na'vi-inflicted scars as badges of courage. Quaritch and Augustine quietly tussle for the loyalty of new avatar driver Jake Scully (Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation), a paraplegic who's understandably eager to take his avatar's legs for a test run. Jake's opening narration explains that he could get his spine fixed, "but not in this economy," so he embraces Quaritch's promise of real legs for a job well done directly reporting valuable intelligence.

This set-up dispatched, Avatar settles in for its long haul, spent mostly deep in the eye-popping jungle. After a few near-death experiences with astonishing beasties, Jake encounters Na'vi princess Neytiri (Zoë Saldana)—Pocahontas in digital drag—then meets the parents (Wes Studi and C.C.H. Pounder). The skeptical Na'vi call Jake a "dreamwalker" but they might as well call him "Dances with Wolves," so obvious is his character arc of the selfish white man "going native" and protecting his adoptive brethren from the people of his birth. Avatar's heart would be in the right place if it weren't already on its sleeve: Cameron's liberalism issues forth in clumsily explicit allegory evoking the folly of colonialism ("the new world"), invasions that become quagmires (Vietnam), and occupation (Iraq, Afghanistan). Cameron's "blue movie" (even the Company's home base seems constantly to be running a "blue-light special") is the less-bloody "blue state" version of Mel Gibson's foreign-language "blue-painted" native gorefest Apocalypto. One thing's for sure: after Avatar, you'll never want to see the color blue again.

Still, Avatar is worth seeing—and, yes, in a theater—for its legitimate "wow factor." Just as the '50s Cinemascope epics peddled clunky stories via must-see spectacle, Avatar wins with expertly choreographed 3-D engagement and otherworldly immersion that plays like a cross between an IMAX nature travelogue film (for nature that never existed) and a CGI Heavy Metal, complete with flights on psychedelic, winged fantasy beasts. The special-effects artistry is certainly remarkable, and the digital characters are surprisingly good actors, thanks partly to the mo-cap of their real-life counterparts and partly to the work of talented technicians. The literal depth of the 3-D aside, it'd be nice if Cameron's script gave more figurative depth to the film's ideas and personalities. Still, as a Tarzan-meets-Aliens jungle adventure, Avatar is both a visually intriguing diversion and instant movie history.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 4/22/2010

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Fox has big plans for Avatar. There's the in-development sequel. There's the home-video launch, with Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and DVD only releases. There'll be a deluxe edition release on both formats, and then a 3D re-release on 3D Blu-ray. So what reason do people have to pick up the initial BD/DVD combo pack, one that totally lacks any bonus material? Well, there really isn't one, unless you missed the movie in theaters and can't wait any longer to join the conversation about the 3D revolution; of course, since the movie won't be 3D on your TV for a while, you'd still be a bit of a poser.

There is another reason you might want to pick up Avatar right now: you don't give a flying fig about bonus features. If so, you're in luck. Because Avatar on Blu-ray gets an astonishing, state-of-the-art presentation lacking in nothing but that missing third dimension. Beautiful color and super-sharp clarity make this a reference-quality disc built to impress. Not a pixel is out of place, and though the image is technically 2D, like a lot of the best Blu-rays, this disc offers a reasonable illusion of dimensionality and depth of field. The definitive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is alone enough to knock your socks off in its wraparound immersion, meticulous balance and sheer aural potency.

Still, Avatar is the kind of movie that pretty much demands extras explaining how they did it, so methinks the wisest thing would be to wait half a year for the "Ultimate Edition." The sales numbers tell a different story: people are snapping up the current discs in droves.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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