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by David Foucher
EDGE Publisher
Friday Dec 18, 2009

The "King of the World" is back - and this is a good thing. It took a decade and nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, but James Cameron has delivered, in "Avatar," another run-don't-walk cinematic experience that, if it won't actually change the medium (as the film's trailers espouse), will absolutely remind us of what's good in it. Have you forgotten? Most of us have. It's a certain sense of wonder, the ability of a story - preferably mythological - to take us to a world apart, and let us experience there the magic of a happily-ever-after. Much will be made of "Avatar's" techno-wizardry - I'll speak to it in a moment - but despite the fact that it takes place on another world and primarily explores love of a different species, it's an eminently human saga. A damn good one.

Cameron's tongue remains healthily planted in his cheek when it comes to imagination. The action here takes place on the aptly-titled planet Pandora, to which the human race has space-flown in an attempt to mine an ore delightfully called unobtanium, held in high regard by those still living on the environmentally-plundered, resource-starved Earth. Sitting on the largest natural deposit of unobtanium lies a tribe of indigenous, overtall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na'vi. And they're not all that interested in relocating. That's OK - we humans never met a challenge we couldn't meet with all kinds of pointy, explosive devices head-on. And so an imminent war brews between the nature-loving, interconnected Na'vi and the Earth military - run by a crew of ne'er-do-wells who answer the question, "What have the principals of the Bush administration been doing since leaving office?"

In a token attempt to allow diplomacy to reign, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has been allowed to pursue relations with the Na'vi. Since they're a rather aggressive race and humans are unable to breathe Pandora's toxic air, she invents the Avatar program: a Matrix-esque technology that permits humans to "inhabit" Na'vi bodies. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Jarhead whose forced to turn Scientist when his twin brother is accidentally killed and his very expensive Na'vi body threatens to go to waste. It helps that Jake is also a cripple (only for lack of coverage - apparently national healthcare didn't get through Obama's watch in this version of future history) who very much enjoys romping around with his new blue legs in Cameron's exotic, beautifully-realized, artistically colorful alien landscape. But it's not to last; if the imposter Na'vi are unable to convince their real-world counterparts to stop squatting on the unobtanium, company man Carter Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) will turn loose Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to simply blow them to bits.

The plot to "A Man Called Horse" (or, if you like, "Dances With Wolves") thusly prepped, Jake is able to strike out on his own - narrowly avoiding death in the jungles of Pandora thanks to Na'vi tribe member Neytiri (Zoƫ Saldana), with whom he quite naturally falls in love. Despite the rather obvious nature of the script and the somewhat overstrained dialogue, we're OK with Jake's transition from grunt to Na'vi warrior - if only because we're gay and it doesn't take much prodding for us to begin lusting after extraordinarily well-built, blue-skinned natives with high cheekbones, pumped pectorals and a penchant for running around largely naked.

It took Cameron three decades to bring this story to the screen - and it was worth the wait. Visually, the picture is a stunner; not only is the environment beautiful, it's also disarmingly dangerous. Scenes in which the military go hunting the Na'vi recall, appropriately, images from Vietnam, a deliberate reminder that despite our ability to craft flying machines and high-end technology, we remain part of the natural cycle. In "Avatar," the material and spiritual once again lock horns, a battle as ancient as it is fascinating, as ironic given this film's moviemaking inheritance as it is historical. Cameron loves to play with his gadgets, but he hasn't forgotten what makes a film great.

And "Avatar" is absolutely great. At heart a love story, it puts on the line all that we hold dear as a civilization; and if the baddies are predictable (and their right-wing targets scornfully evident), the protagonists are every bit as heroic as Cameron could afford. The film has an overlong running time and nonetheless flies by in a whirl of colorful zest, hate and love sequences gleefully rendered and beautifully acted. Even the 3-D technology here feels organic, tricks of the trade eschewed for surprisingly subtle yet effective purposes: it is a slave to the story, not the other way around.

Ultimately, we're left wondering if the film's message lies betrayed by the larger achievement here; but then, even if Cameron's technological hand is a marvel that, in the end, forces me to consider "Avatar" for best picture of the year purely on cinematic merits, it's also deftly subtle enough to allow us to sink, mire-like, into the world he has created. It's a wonderful place to spend a few hours, perhaps sufficient to recall the repeat-viewing machine that "Titanic" was. And it's also, therefore, a success on multiple levels. Go see it.



Runtime :: 162 mins
Release Date :: Dec 18, 2009
Language :: English
Country :: United States

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.

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