Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
There's a great movie in which humans try to drive an alien race out of their homes. First, they go about it strategically, learning what the aliens like and bribing them. Then they try force, flat-out killing the creatures and destroying their turf. One human, however, discovers that aliens are people, too, and the battle turns personal, and allegiances are tested.
That movie is called District 9.
The outline of that plot also fits Avatar, James Cameron's ridiculously hyped, reportedly $300 million 3D project. The film is set in 2154 and takes place mostly in a computer-generated world called Pandora, a planet inhabited by the Na'vi, a race of tall, reed-thin beings who look like blue, bruised Stretch Armstrongs. It's also rich in something ridiculously named Unobtainium, a resource that Earthlings want to get their grubby live-action hands on.
But humans can't breathe Pandoran air, and the Na'vi aren't exactly welcoming. So a group of scientists, militants and bad guys get avatar'd in order to ingratiate themselves and, in the best-case scenario, convince the Na'vi to move elsewhere.
Cameron, who also wrote the script, doesn't really bother the audience with these details, but instead drops viewers into an already-in-progress plot with broadly sketched characters: There's Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine; Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a badass boss; Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez), a badass pilot; Parker (Giovanni Ribisi), a corporate type who barks nerdisms; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a colonel who barks Bush-isms and is so coolly evil he sips at a beverage throughout an air raid.
From the beginning, Avatar's narrative is a loop of Jake and others going to Pandora, learning about the Na'vi, returning to their base, repeat. When the Marine gets stuck on the planet overnight, he becomes the mission's VIP, fighting the vicious, unfamiliar flora and fauna and cozying up to local Neytiri (Star Trek's Zoe Saldana). Soon, he's speaking their language (one exhaustively invented for the film), swinging from vines, and flying their pterodactyl-like animals.
And, maybe just a little, he's falling in love.
Perhaps Cameron kept the story simple in order to keep viewers' attention where he wants it — on the effects. This film was more than 10 years in the making, and the director actually invented his own cameras to create a lush digital world with iridescent plants, graceful insects and ferocious animals. The Na'vi believe their god is everywhere, so regard their environment as sacred.
If this is the extent of your knowledge going into Avatar, you'll probably think hundreds of millions of dollars may be a lot for 3D snowflakes. But if you know that these flakes were conjured in a completely CG environment — that this entire world was borne of Cameron's imagination — the result is significantly more impressive. The 3D isn't overdone either, and inconspicuously adds depth to the images instead of in-your-face gimmicks.
And yet, as highly detailed as Pandora looks, its meager plot fails to pull you in, instead leaving you to ponder the technology. It's imaginative, but not transportive. Overuse of a score that screams "Majestic!" is also a corny distraction, begging you to be wowed by scenes of fog-covered mountains and hundreds of Na'vi holding hands and circling in worship.
Adjectives such as "beautiful" and "breathtaking" have been thrown at Avatar, and they're apt. But I'll add a third B-word: "boring."