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Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and Jake, voiced by Sam Worthington, in Avatar: Director James Cameron is that rare technocrat who knows how to tell a story.

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3 out of 4 stars



  • Directed and written by James Cameron
  • Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
  • Classification: PG

Big money, big risk, pretty big reward. That's been his consistent pattern, and it's high time to give credit where credit is overdue: James Cameron delivers. He delivered in Aliens , in the Terminator series, in Titanic , and the guy has done it again here. Okay, even when tricked out with a rumoured $300-million (U.S.) of 3-D wizardry and CG technology, Avatar may not be the movie to revolutionize movies. But it's definitely a movie to boost our faith in movie spectacle, and to remind us that Cameron is that rare technocrat who knows how to tell a story. Ironically, a really old-fashioned story, in this case, and so steeped in liberal sentiment that our director, who has never been short of detractors, runs the risk of attack from a whole new direction. Damned if he isn't daring the Fox News crowd to brand him a tree-hugging pacifist.

Directed by James Cameron, Avatar stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver.

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But, first, the script, which Cameron has ingeniously crafted to sail out on three separate tacks simultaneously - forward into a revealed future and back to a lost past, all the while addressing the concerns of our troubled present. Visually, this gives him the chance to tap into his state-of-the-art toolbox and put the money right up on the screen - one moment we're watching a zippier Star Wars , the next an enhanced JurassicPark . Narratively, it lets him hopscotch around different genres like sci-fi, adventure, war flicks, even vintage westerns - look and it's a stranger-in-a-strange land tale, look again and it's cowboys-and-Indians shtick. And, thematically, he gets to be similarly eclectic, commenting (yes, liberally) on everything from environmental havoc and health-care reform to American imperialism and corporate greed. That's some menu; now here's how it works.

The setting is the year 2154, and we open on a space shuttle travelling to Pandora, a solid moon circling the gaseous planet of a distant star.

Inside the shuttle, zero gravity is really cool in 3-D, but Cameron just tosses off the effect - he's got much more eye-popping stuff in store. Indeed, Pandora proves to be quite the box of mixed delights. Within their high-tech, oxygenated barracks, the human invaders have occupied the territory for the usual reason: There's raw material to be filched, a precious mineral sorely needed to replenish the Earth's failing energy supply.

The mining project is overseen by a corporate bigwig and a napalm-loving Colonel right out of Apocalypse Now. However, balancing the avarice is a token nod to knowledge. Led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a few scientists are on hand to analyze the moon's rain-forest vegetation and its stone-age inhabitants - the "Na'vi" are tall, blue-skinned folks with wide-spread orbs, Spockean ears and long slender tails, the better to navigate the 1,000-foot treetop where they make their home. To win over the "hearts and minds" of the locals, the scientists have devised a way of implanting their own DNA into a Na'vi body and, thus reproduced as avatars, hobnobbing with the natives, teaching them a smattering of English and studying their tribal habits.

Jake (Sam Worthington) is such an avatar. In his human guise, he's a paraplegic ex-Marine, maimed in combat elsewhere in the galaxy. ("They can fix a spinal, but not on vets' benefits, not in this economy.") Of course, Jake is our guide into the strange land of the Na'vi, and Cameron's cue to amp up the visual spectacle. Blending the mythic and the prehistoric, what a compelling world it is, an eerie yet often lovely realm of floating mountains, tumbling waterfalls, six-legged steeds, rampaging dinosaurs, of pink flora that blossom by day and feral dogs that snarl by night.

There, we meet Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), another strong-willed babe in Cameron's canon, and under her tutelage Jake goes native with a passion. Together, they tame a pterodactyl, broken like a wild bronco, and the two fly up through the surreal skies. She instructs him in the spiritual ways of her people, whose tails are literally plugged into their environment in symbiotic fusion. If this sounds a bit too classic, perilously close to trite, it is and it isn't. Certainly, all this noble-savage palaver can wear thin. Then again, since the imagery is so potent and unique and palpably exotic, the familiar narrative tropes are almost reassuring, helping to ground us in this otherworldly Eden and giving the predictable message a surprisingly fresh vigour.

For example, check out the machine-in-the-garden sequence. Sure, it's inevitable. We know that, once again, humans and their steely brutality will despoil yet another pristine landscape, slaughter ever more innocents. The idea is old, but since the environment is new, so is our emotion at its destruction. The film draws us visually into the beguiling mysteries of the place, then defies us not to grieve when the bulldozers do their worst. And grieve we do - this scene feels truly tragic.

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The action afterwards does not. Pitting armour and explosives against arrows and guile, the climactic battle drags wearisomely on, one of the few times when the picture suffers from its 2 3/4-hour length. Still, the occasional lapse is forgivable when that reward is delivered. Avatar is a king's ransom fairly well spent, not least because Cameron's invitation into his superbly crafted universe comes with an unexpected price: He makes it easy to gaze fondly on all this movie magic, but only in exchange for a hard look at ourselves.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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