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Out of body experience: It’s easy to get lost in the visually spectacular world of director James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 17, 2009

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Here is a glass of Kool-Aid - would you like to drink it? It’s made up of equal parts expectation and hype: the long-awaited return, after 12 years, of a gifted filmmaker to the epic narrative form that’s his true strength; the breakthrough technology to make visionary fantasy worlds seem more vivid than our humdrum reality. The glass holds the promise that our entertainment industry always makes and almost never keeps - the promise of the Brand New Thing, the pop artifact that changes everything.

Here is a movie called “Avatar.’’ If you drink the Kool-Aid (it’s for sale on every channel and in every magazine), the film may indeed look like the Brand New Thing. If you don’t, “Avatar’’ may instead appear to be a long, tactile, visually revelatory, dramatically simple-minded 3-D science-fiction adventure made up of live-action sequences and photo-realistic digital images. (Instead of “computer animation,’’ by the way, journalists have been instructed by studio publicists to use the phrase “the Next Generation of Special Effects.’’ Mmm, mixed berry!)

James Cameron’s gamble, in other words, has paid off in ways both problematic and successful beyond measure. The 60 percent of “Avatar’’ that comes from the computer - either in wholly invented images or by wrapping human bodies in imaginary digitized forms - is bewitchingly, tantalizingly realistic. The film creates a planet called Pandora, a race of tall, blue cat-people called the Na’Vi, and gives them both a dazzlingly colorful rainforest reality - part Rousseau, part George Lucas on inhalants.

The roughly 40 percent of the film that is live action - those scenes involving human colonizers from Earth amid their predatory mining and military hardware - is, oddly, less convincing. “Avatar’’ focuses on a scientific team that has cloned Na’Vi bodies for human hosts to patch into as they (the humans) lie in high-tech tanning beds back at the base. With these biotech sock-puppets, head wonk Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, juicily riffing on both Ellen Ripley and Dian Fossey) hopes to “win the hearts and minds’’ of the indigenous population. If she doesn’t, the corporate suits and military men (represented, respectively, by Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang, both of whom would twirl their mustaches if they had them) will happily force the issue.

What Grace isn’t expecting is that her newest team member, a paraplegic ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington), will go native once he has found his avatar legs. In his long new blue body, Jake enthusiastically joins the Na’Vi as a sort of junior probationary member, quickly acquiring their jungle skills, the ability to tame and ride the local Pandoran horses and pterodactyls, and the respect and love of Neytiri, played by a fierce, inventive Zoe Saldana underneath all the pixels. From the way the local flying-jellyfish tree spirits alight on Jake in flocks, it’s clear that our hero is the Chosen One.

Then the earthlings come back with their bulldozers and cannons, and Jake has to choose sides. Hmmm, which will it be? The Na’Vi with their interconnected biosphere, their massive Tree of Souls, their literal genetic bond with the flora and fauna that surrounds them? Or the snarling humans addicted to hardware, despoilage, extinction, and big, snorting machines? Yes, “Avatar’’ is the latest high-tech entertainment to lecture us that technology is wrong. Human civilization, too. The movie’s cultural politics are childishly two-dimensional, at times insulting (especially if you know anyone in the armed forces). Squint at “Avatar’’ the wrong way and it starts to look like a training film for jihad - not, I’m guessing, what Cameron had in mind.

In terms of plot, then, this is “Dances With Wolves.’’ Seriously: It’s the same movie, re-imagined as a speculative-anthropological freak-out. Because Cameron is a visionary and a perfectionist, though, it’s possible to get lost in his created world, and this is where “Avatar’’ thoroughly lives up to its hype. I could go on about the depth of field in the rapturous 3-D landscapes, how cleanly each individual leaf and insect is realized, how fully visualized the critters, but words start to fail. “Avatar’’ is an entertainment to be not just seen but absorbed on a molecular level; it’s as close to a full-body experience as we’ll get until they invent the holo-suits. Cameron aims for sheer wonderment, and he delivers.

(A side note: At the film’s initial screening for Boston-area press, the 3-D visuals were noticeably off, causing image-doubling that made for a poor viewing experience. A hastily scheduled rescreening, overseen by a Fox technician flown in from the West Coast, resulted in a vastly improved “Avatar,’’ although reflective surfaces in the live-action scenes are still hard for the eye to resolve. A projector setting was at issue, apparently, and you’d better hope the kid who sells you popcorn knows which button to push at your local theater, because the Fox guy has since gone home.)

What is clear is that Cameron remains a natural-born filmmaker, even when he gets obsessed by world-building at the expense of plot and dialogue. You feel you can almost reach in and touch Pandora, not because of the 3-D but because the director has imagined the planet’s dangers and beauties well beyond the borders of the screen. Other elements show the King of the World starting to repeat himself: The clomping exoskeleton from “Aliens’’ gets a redo here, as does that film’s butch Latina Marine, now played (very engagingly) by Michelle Rodriguez. Worthington is solid and bland as both the human and Na’Vi Jakes, but since the hero is in effect our avatar, that vagueness makes a kind of sense. (It’s up to Weaver, Saldana, and Rodriguez to provide the gumption - but Cameron has always loved powerful women.)

The director has said he has been carrying this story around since he was a teenager dreaming it up in his bedroom, and that makes sense, too. At night the jungles of Pandora bioluminesce like black-light posters, and there are times you may feel you’ve landed on the Disco Planet. The character Neytiri is a classic teenboy daydream - the wild woman conquered - and what’s the whole avatar business but a way to imagine oneself out of a small, impotent body and into something stronger, truer, realer.

At the same time, “Avatar’’ is merely the latest white man’s romance, and it hits every stop in the playbook: The broken hero who finds renewal by leaving his decadent people, who joins a tribe of noble savages and becomes purified, who leads his new children to victory (because they can’t lead themselves) and becomes a legend in the doing. Tarzan has been here, and Herman Melville, and so has Kevin Costner. As a cultural cliché, it reflects profound disgust with the society of men and a yearning for authenticity - for a connection deeper than anything our fallen modern world can provide.

Is Cameron aware of the traps of this fantasy? More than it might seem. “Avatar’’ is, after all, a movie where the hero dreams himself into a strong blue body and wakes, crestfallen, to find himself back in his own skin. The movie knows that Jake Sully is like Pinocchio, a human marionette aching to be a real alien, and at times it takes the measure of the distance between the two. Not for nothing is the standard Na’Vi greeting “I see you.’’ Not for nothing is the scene in which Neytiri finally says those words to the human Jake the most emotionally powerful moment in the film.

I think Cameron loves the fantasy more, though - enough to sail close to the edge of the ridiculous in the final moments of “Avatar.’’ Enough to spend 15 years and hundreds of millions of dollars building a beautiful someplace that doesn’t exist and into which we can blissfully, forgetfully project ourselves. Here’s your Kool-Aid, he says. Drink deep.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

AVATAR Written and directed by:

James Cameron

Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX theaters, Natick and Reading

Running time: 162 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language, and some smoking)

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