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Friday, Dec. 18, 2009

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You might recall a little film by the name of Titanic. The vehicle arrived in1997 with the stench of failure attached to it. Originally scheduled for the summer blockbuster season, the release had been delayed for months, usually a portent of disaster.

Its director, James Cameron, had locked horns with studio execs as he obsessively-compulsively fixated on post-production reediting. The film ran way over budget, surpassing the $200 million plateau. Who would want to see a depressing three-hour tragedy about a bunch of people drowning in the cold waters of the North Atlantic-during the holiday season no less? Who indeed?

Courtesy of an unprecedented 15 consecutive weeks at the apex of the domestic charts and strong international appeal, the film became the leading box office hit of all time. Eventually, it grossed a mind-boggling $1.8 billion dollars worldwide. In addition, Titanic garnered a record tying 11-Oscars, including the coveted best film award.

Flush with success, the film's auteur, James Cameron had wanted to follow up immediately with a futuristic fantasy script that he had written. However, he recognized that the technology to translate his vision onto the screen did not exist yet. When Cameron saw the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he concluded that he could perfect the requisite technology. Cameron has publicly pontificated that his Avatar will change moviemaking forever. Wags wondered aloud whether these were hubristic rants of an egomaniac. Hubristic perhaps, but the extraordinary quality of Avatar has forced Cameron's detractors to eat their words.

Avatar is set on the distant planet Pandorain the year 2154. Humans have befouled their home planet and depleted its natural resources. A mega-corporation has established a beachhead on Pandora, where they are mining unobtanium, a precious mineral that fetches $20 million per kilo. The biggest impediment to the corporation's avaricious agenda is the presence of the Na'vi, a 10-foot tall, cobalt blue-skinned, yellow-eyed species. The richest lode of unobtanium lies directly under a sacred site of this ferocious indigenous tribe.

The corporation's point man, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is overtly disdainful of the Na'vi, referring to them as "blue monkeys." He plans to displace the Na'vi from their traditional lands as a prelude to strip-mining the unobtanium. His preliminary scheme involves persuading the Na'vi to voluntarily move. To this end, he has recruited the services of cerebrotonic scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). She has developed avatars, ersatz Na'vi, which can be remotely operated by their highly trained human counterparts. These avatars will try to interface with Na'vi and engage in peaceful dialogue. Of course, if diplomacy fails, mercenary troops under Col. Miles Quaritch (a scene-stealing Stephen Lang) will be dispatched.

Enter Marine grunt, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington from Terminator Salvation). He is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, crippled in battle. By happenstance, his twin brother, who had been prepared to be an avatar operator, has been murdered. Although Jake is devoid of training or scientific inclination, he is a DNA match for the avatar, which had been custom designed for his slain sibling. Over Dr. Augustine's vehement protestations, Jake is assigned to replace hisbrother in the science corps. 

In his proxy avatar body, Jake regains the use of his legs and virile vitality. With his mobility and zest for life restored, he  meets Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), a lithe Na'vi huntress. She turns out to be the daughter of the tribe's chief, Eytukan (voiced by Wes Studi from The Lastof the Mohicans). Will Jake's exposure to the Na'vi's synergistic co-existence with nature trigger an epiphany? Will he eschew his role as lackey of the corporate oligarchy?

Cameron's screenplay does not draw from any literary work or mythic antecedent. Though original and set in an extra-terrestrial future, it is evocative of the sensibility that pervades such revisionist Westerns as A Man Called Horse and Dances With Wolves. There are strong echoes of U.S. imperialistic fervor that manifested in Vietnam and later Iraq. The bellicose mercenary leader, Quaritch, snorts phrases like "pre-emptive strike" and "shock and awe" with cavalier abandon. Implicit in the film's subtext is a critique of corporate greed and its profit at all costs ethos. Avatar offers an alternative set of values, one congruent with the veneration of nature, practiced by the Na'vi.

Despite a running time of over two and a half hours, you never feel the length of this film. Credit the taut pacing in conjunction with a compelling storyline, plenty of action, nuanced characters, resonant iconography, sharp dialogue delivered by a strong ensemble cast, and, most of all, sensational production values. Though eye-popping in its depiction of otherworldly flora and fauna, the performance capture C.G.I. never seems gimmicky or threatens to overwhelm the film.

Avatar adroitly blends cutting edge technology with classic narrative panache. It is a triumph of cinematic magic