‘Avatar’ DVD review: Warmed-over story doesn’t do justice to dazzling visuals

Avatar director James Cameron and star Sam Worthington

Let me first say I have nothing against James Cameron as a filmmaker. I greatly admired Titanic, The Abyss, Aliens, True Lies and his Terminator movies. But as with T1 and T2, which wound up owing Harlan Ellison a credit for similar Outer Limits scripts, I’m also keenly aware of derivative elements when it comes to Avatar.

Let me also say I think CG is the most overused thing in Hollywood today. CG is a grand tool and toy, but when employed too often in an otherwise live-action film as a substitute for in-camera work, it inevitably pales.

Throughout Avatar’s hefty running time, I felt as if I were watching two movies melded into one: a live-action movie with actors working on sets, and an animated movie where nothing on camera is any more real than in a Chuck Jones short. (What about CG via actors in motion-capture suits, you may howl. Well, what about it? It’s still animation, and it disconnects a film from its purportedly live-action essence.)

That doesn’t mean you can’t create astonishing imagery with CG, as Avatar does. Its world of Pandora is as wondrous as it gets in sci-fi. But in the end, it’s a cartoon world embedded in an initially (and ostensibly) live-action movie.

The Lord of the Rings, at least, relied heavily on live, in-camera actors, settings and sets, while also laced with loads of fanciful CG showmanship. Avatar doesn’t seem to care that its CG world, while amazingly detailed, is entirely CG and ceaselessly looks and feels solely like CG animation.

As for derivations, didn’t we see a tough Latina military type in Aliens, and now (via Michelle Rodriguez) in Avatar? And weren’t Alien and Aliens also about big bad corporations or governments wanting to strip-mine the galaxy for resources until confronted with an indigenous “problem”?

And isn’t the mind-transferral used to put humans in alien “avatars” just a Second Life virtual world computer game transposed to cinema (a game whose participants, in my book, need the Shatner-esque exhortation to “get a life)? And aren’t Pandora’s blue people just metaphors for Native Americans being muscled off their land by colonialist encroachers? And isn’t their spears-and-arrows defiance of snazzy bad-guy hardware straight out of the Ewoks’ playbook?

In short, isn’t all this overly familiar?

I say yes, which perhaps is why, even after setting the all-time box office record, Avatar was not named Oscar’s best picture. Its story and characters simply weren’t strong enough — and original enough — to merit that.

Look, I’m not challenging the film’s commercial clout. I accept it and fully acknowledge it, and if I were running Hollywood, I wouldn’t sue a James Cameron film for plagiarism (as Harlan Ellison once did — and won) but would pin a medal on Cameron. Even so, box office popularity and intrinsic artistry are not synonymous.

Yes, Avatar is a grand — if preachy and overlong — adventure film, dazzling to the eye with its vivid otherworldliness. But all the tricks Cameron has up his sleeve do not distract me, at least, from what ultimately seems like a routine and rehashed story.

PS–The DVD and Blu-ray debut of Avatar are remarkably bereft of any extra features. No trailers. No deleted scenes. No making-of materials. Those will come with a home market reissue of the film later this year. For now, you just get the movie — and there’s no 3D.

For special features and extra footage, look for an “Ultimate Edition” in November. And for a 3-D version of the film, wait till next year.

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