Effects wow but story limps in 'Avatar'

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When a film brashly asserts that it will change moviemaking forever, one feels the urge to either take its "king of the world" arrogance down a notch or hail it as the masterpiece it claims to be.

But -- and forgive us if this sounds too much like the dialogue in President Obama's war room -- what if there's a third option?

James Cameron's 3-D "Avatar" has all the smack of a Film Not To Miss -- a movie whose effects are clearly revolutionary, a spectacle that millions will find adventure in. But it nevertheless feels unsatisfying and somehow lacks the pulse of a truly alive film.

"Avatar" takes place in the year 2154 on the faraway moon of Pandora, where, befitting its mythological name, the ills of human life have been released. The Earth depleted, humans have arrived to mine an elusive mineral, wryly dubbed Unobtainium.

The Resources Developmental Administration, a kind of military contractor, is running the operation. At the top of the chain of command is the CEO-like Carter Selfridge (an excellent, ruthless Giovanni Ribisi), who's hellbent on showing quarterly profits for shareholders. His muscle and head of security is the rock-jawed Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who curses Pandora's inhabitants (the Na'vi) as savages and considers the place worse than hell.

In fact, it's a paradise. In Pandora, Cameron has fashioned a sensual, neon-colored, dreamlike world of lush jungle, gargantuan trees and floating mountains. Its splendor is easily the most wondrous aspect of "Avatar."

Cameron, like the deep sea diver that he is (his only films since 1997's "Titanic" have been underwater documentaries), lets his camera peer with fascination at the glow-in-the-dark plant life, the six-legged horses and -- especially beautiful -- the nighttime frog-like creatures that, when touched, open a bright white sail and spiral into the air.

It's this sense of discovery -- in Pandora, in the wizardry of the filmmaking -- that makes "Avatar" often thrilling.

Our main character is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a brawny former Marine who lost the power of his legs in battle on Earth. His scientist twin brother has just died, and Sully, having a matching genome, is invited to replace him in a mission to Pandora.

He joins a small group of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are attempting to learn more about the Na'vi by conducting field studies and doing a bit of undercover science. They've created avatars of themselves to go about Pandora as a living, breathing Na'vi, while their human bodies lie dormant in a sort of tanning bed (they return to them when their avatars sleep).

The Na'vi are a 10-foot-tall species with translucent, aqua-colored skin, 3-fingered hands and smooth, lean torsos. They have long, neat dreadlocks for hair and wide, feline foreheads. The smart freckles on their brow faintly light up like tiny constellations.

With beady headdresses and skimpy sashes, the Na'vi are clearly meant to evoke American Indians, as well as similarly exploited tribes of South America and Africa. They pray over slain animals and feel at one with nature. Their tails (oh, yes, they also have tails) even connect -- like nature's USB port -- to things like mystical willow branches, horse manes or the hair of pterodactyl-like birds.

It's no coincidence that the Na'vi chief Eyukan is played by the Cherokee actor Wes Studi, whose credits include "Dances with Wolves," perhaps the film most thematically akin to "Avatar."

"Avatar," which Cameron wrote as well as directed, is essentially a fairy tale that imagines a more favorable outcome for the oppressed fighting against the technology and might of Western Civilization. Sully, who quickly takes to life as a Na'vi, begins to feel his allegiances blurred.

Though he has promised Quaritch to spy on the Na'vi (their home lies atop an Unobtainium deposit), he begins to appreciate their ways.

The inevitable battle has overt shades of current wars. Quaritch, drinking coffee during a bombing with a cavalier callousness like Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now," drops phrases like "pre-emptive strike," ''fight terror with terror" and even "shock and awe," which apparently is destined to survive for centuries in the lexicon.

These historical and contemporary overtones bring the otherworldly "Avatar" down to Earth and down to cliche. The message of environmentalism and of (literal) tree-hugging resonates, but sap "Avatar" of drama and complexity.

Ultimately, the technology of "Avatar" isn't the problem -- moviemaking, itself, is an exercise in technology. But one need look no further than Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to see how technique -- whether it be 3-D or antique stop-motion animation -- can find soulfulness.

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