AVATAR, written and directed by James Cameron, 166 minutes, rated PG-13.
The year’s most ambitious and visually arresting film is James Cameron’s “Avatar.” You’ve never seen anything quite like this, which works in its favor since the film’s sheer beauty is enough to detract you from the fact that Cameron, a competent writer, is not a great writer. Many of his characters are caricatures. Too much of the dialogue is stock.
The good news? Not a lick of it matters here.
Budgeted at nearly $270 million, “Avatar” spends every cent to create a world so rich and lush, so textured, real and surreal, you give yourself over to it and then lose yourself in it. Computers long have driven films, but not at this high a level and not with Cameron’s legions of gifted artists working behind the screens.
At nearly three hours, the movie is long, but the trick is that the storytelling is brisk, with Cameron focusing the bulk of his film on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former marine paralyzed from the waist down and now confined to a wheelchair.
How a team of scientists get him out of that chair and on his feet is unconventional, to say the least, but the year is 2154, after all, and apparently anything is possible. Besides, getting Jake mobile is critical to the movie. Doing so involves the use of a scientifically created, 10-foot-tall avatar modeled after the Na’vi, an alien race that lives on the planet Pandora, which has the misfortune of possessing a mineral called unobtainium that could save Earth from its dwindling energy reserves if enough of it is mined.
And so it will be mined, by force if necessary, though the idea behind these manufactured Na’vi is to allow for assimilation in an effort to move this race to another part of Pandora, where the unobtainium isn’t present.
Through sleep and science, Jake becomes his avatar — long and blue and lithe of limb, it’s a thrill to watch him run again. And soon he’s off to Pandora with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, nicely channeling Ripley from Cameron’s “Aliens”) and a handful of others. Once there, the beauty of Pandora shields a wealth of dangers. Anything can and does happen, with Jake eventually being separated from his crew and stumbling upon the cat-like Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who mocks him, nearly kills him, and whose parents lead the Na’vi. Naturally, in spite of all her hissing, Jakes falls for her.
Since the film’s pleasures go beyond the brilliance of its visuals (Cameron’s strength always has been his ability to mount a huge climax, which he does here), it would be a mistake to reveal more. Safe to say that the supporting cast (Stephen Lang, Giovani Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez) is solid; our own sorry, bloody history is evoked via the Na’vi, who recall the American Indian; and the love that grows between Jake and Neytiri is heartfelt and real.
But the movie isn’t perfect. The problem? Cameron’s use of 3-D technology.
For the most part, the effect works seamlessly, particularly along Pandora’s stellar landscapes, which are breathtaking not just in their complex, colorful realization (the set design will win the Academy Award), but in the depth of field Cameron achieves. When Jake and Neytiri take flight on their winged beasts and soar down and around a hive of floating mountains, you’ll feel each plummet in your gut. But when Cameron sandwiches his camera into tight quarters, focus issues occur and images warp to the point of distraction. This is a quibble, but it still was an annoyance and it should be noted. So, consider it noted.
Now, if you haven’t already done so, go and see one of the year’s most exhilarating films.
Also in theaters
NINE, directed by Rob Marshall, written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, 112 minutes, rated PG-13; now playing at Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema.
The new Rob Marshall movie is as much a curiosity as it is a disaster. Presumably, it’s about Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis, wasted), a smoky wreck and famous Italian director not unlike Federico Fellini who, in 1960s Rome, is about to follow two recent flops with his new movie, the aggressively titled “Italia.”
Trouble is, much like Marcello Mastroianni’s character in Fellini’s “8½,” which inspired “Nine,” Guido is crippled by the prospect of failing. Without a script or, for that matter, an idea for a story, he has no clue what “Italia” even looks like.
The same can be said for Marshall (“Chicago”) about “Nine.” Watching his film unfold in its belches of choppy extravagance, you can’t help wondering if the director himself had a clue about how to approach this former Broadway musical and turn it into a movie.
An odd kind of symmetry is at work here. Both Guido and Marshall once knew critical success, and now each is trying to top those successes while overcoming a recent failure (for Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha”). The irony? Since this is Marshall’s second flop in a row, he essentially has matched Guido flop for flop.
Going into the movie, it’s difficult not to be excited to see it, particularly if you saw the terrific (and misleading) trailer, if you are a fan of Marshall’s “Chicago” and if you’re charged by the award-winning cast.
Joining Day-Lewis are Judi Dench, who adds pluck as Guido’s disenfranchised costume designer; Nicole Kidman as a pretty icicle with coiffed hair and parted lips who plays a popular actress we never come to know; Penelope Cruz as Guido’s saucy mistress who somehow finds a personality within the thin material; Kate Hudson as a reporter eager to know more about Guido’s new film — and how fashion plays a role in it; and then there’s the biggest waste of talent of all, Sophia Loren, who is Guido’s mother and apparently only here to stretch out her arms.
There are others, specifically Marion Cotillard as Guido’s wife, Louisa. She once was a leading actress in Guido’s films, but she hasn’t worked since marrying him, and she’s well aware of how often he has deceived her with his many affairs. You feel for her, which is a good thing because she’s the only character in this movie who elicits an emotional connection. Finally, there’s pop star Fergie, who looks like a bloated cherub with a frizzy fright wig on her head — and who delivers the best musical performance in her slutty rendition of “Be Italian.”
Each actor is offered the opportunity to sing and dance in separate stage productions that take place in the cobwebs of Guido’s mind, but good luck finding a cohesive storyline attached to them. Instead of informing the movie with some semblance of a plot, most of the performances feel stapled to this musical because, well, it’s being billed as a musical.
Some of the productions are fun to watch (Cruz, Dench, Hudson), but these show-stoppers nevertheless are lazily filmed and they don’t move the story forward as they did in Marshall’s “Chicago.” They’re just here — the cinematic equivalent of roosters flapping their clipped wings and crowing at center stage.
Such is the movie. Poor Guido. Poor Marshall. Poor audiences, who likely were eager to see this movie (given the hype, who wasn’t?), but who likely will leave it knowing they deserved better.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.
Renting a DVD? NEWS film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases. Those capped and in bold print are new to stores this week.
Adventureland — B+
Angels & Demons — C-
Body of Lies — C
Bruno — C
Coraline — A
DISTRICT 9 — B
Drag Me to Hell — B+
Dragonball: Evolution — C
Duplicity — C+
Eagle Eye — D
Earth — B
Elegy — A-
EXTRACT — C+
Fast & Furious — B-
Funny People — C+
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past — D
Gran Torino — A-
Hannah Montana: The Movie — C-
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — B+
I Love You, Man — B+
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — A-
Julie & Julia — B+
Knowing — B
Land of the Lost — BOMB
My Bloody Valentine 3-D — B-
Observe and Report — C-
Obsessed — C-
Orphan — C-
The Proposal — C+
Role Models — B+
17 Again — C
Star Trek — A-
State of Play — B-
Sunshine Cleaning — B
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 — B
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — D
Up — B+
X-Men Origins: Wolverine — B-