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Reviewed by: Scott Chitwood
Rating: 9 out of 10
Movie Details: View here

Cast:
Sam Worthington as Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver as Grace
Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge
Joel Moore as Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder as Moat
Wes Studi as Eytukan
Laz Alonso as Tsu'tey
Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel
Matt Gerald as Corporal Lyle Wainfleet
Sean Anthony Moran as Private Fike
Jason Whyte as Cryo Vault Med Tech
Scott Lawrence as Venture Star Crew Chief

Summary:
Amazing creatures, cool environments, impressive 3-D effects, and awesome action scenes make "Avatar" the must-see movie of the 2009 holiday season. While the story is quite familiar, there's more than enough visual spectacle to make up for it.

Story:
In the year 2154, mankind has discovered a new planet dubbed Pandora. It is filled with wildlife, all symbiotically related and all extremely dangerous. Not only that, it is populated by an intelligent race of 9 ft tall blue aliens called the Na'vi. But as mankind is prone to do, they have begun to exploit the planet for its riches and mine it for an incredibly valuable mineral named 'unobtainium.'

The corporation leading the mining operation has brought in a group of scientists to study the ecology and the aliens. But they have also brought in a group of mercenaries to help relocate or eliminate the troublesome Na'vi. In an effort to speed up diplomatic efforts and to prevent a military conflict, the scientists have created a group of human/alien 'avatars' to help interact with the Na'vi. Humans remotely control the alien avatars like a second body.

Jake Sully's twin brother was part of the avatar program, but when he died, the corporation was left with an expensive avatar that could only interface with his unique genetic match. Jake was asked to fill in for his brother. Now the disabled former marine has arrived on Pandora as part of the avatar program. But when he finally links with his avatar and meets the Na'vi, he gets more than he bargained for. Will Jake ultimately be responsible for the Na'vi's salvation or their destruction?

"Avatar" is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.

What Worked:
First and foremost, the world of Pandora is absolutely amazing. Every plant, animal, and environment is incredibly imaginative. James Cameron takes the familiar and puts a new spin on it to create an incredible, yet entirely realistic feeling world. It's quite apparent that his deep-sea explorations over the last few years had a huge influence on the world of Pandora. Plants look and act like coral, creatures float through the air like jellyfish, and everything is bioluminescent like deepwater creatures. It's visually stunning and it makes you think what could possibly be out there in space waiting to be discovered on another planet.

A lot of people complain about the overuse of CGI, but this is a case where it is done right. You become so totally immersed in the world that you forget it is all digital. I remember one scene where Jake's avatar dives into a river to escape a pursuing creature. I thought, "That looks like it was shot in South America," then it hit me. Every drop of water, every blade of grass, every beam of light, and everything on the screen was completely CGI. When you start thinking about the technological feats it took to get all that imagery up on the screen, it absolutely boggles the mind.

Entirely CGI characters are very risky business. They can either fail horribly (Jar Jar Binks) or work perfectly (Gollum). This is a case where they're working perfectly. Despite being 9 ft tall and blue, you quickly forget you're watching a highly detailed cartoon. They capture the facial expressions of the actors and actresses perfectly. This is especially the case with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. When she's angry or agitated, they exactly capture her performance. They're amazingly expressive. I was also amazed at how much Sigourney Weaver's avatar looked like her. Overall, this is great character animation.

On the live-action side, the cast is excellent across the board. Sam Worthington really gets to shine as Jake Sully. He has the right mix of naiveté, toughness, and cockiness. You believe his transition from a marine obeying orders to a man literally 'gone native.' While Zoe Saldana is entirely CGI as Neytiri, she's no less impressive in her performance as previously mentioned. She's passionate and she manages to deliver the imaginary Na'vi language in a convincing manner. Sigourney Weaver is always a favorite of mine and it's cool to see her here as Grace. When she's in the lab, she's a tough old broad. But when she's in her avatar in the Pandora environment, she really comes alive. It's a nice touch for her character. The other real standout among the cast is Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch. This guy is someone you don't want to mess with. Cameron goes out of his way to make this guy tough. In one scene he barrels out a door without an oxygen mask just to try and take potshots at escaping prisoners. In another scene he's literally on fire and he doesn't stop what he's doing. Combine him with one of the armored AMP suits and you have someone that could tussle with both the Terminator and the Alien queen combined.

James Cameron is known for his action scenes and he certainly delivers here. We get some great scenes of Jake's avatar being pursued by an attacking panther-like beast. We get some absolutely thrilling scenes of Jake learning to fly his banshee creature. Then when everything hits the fan in the grand finale, we get a spectacular aerial battle between the helicopter gunships and the Na'vi riding the banshees. It's pretty spectacular and any sci-fi fan worth his lightsaber or pointy ears will get goosebumps seeing Jake's avatar in warpaint firing a gun at a spaceship while flying what's essentially a big dragon. This is the kind of stuff geeks live for.

If it's at all possible, see this in 3-D. "Avatar" is a cool movie without it, but this will add the icing on the cake. When Jake and Neytiri climb trees and run across branches hundreds of feet in the air, you get a real sense of height. When Jake walks through the Pandora forest, every leaf, branch, and flying creature pops off the screen. And needless to say the flying battle in the finale looks amazing. You'll thank yourself for going out of your way to see it in 3-D.

What Didn't Work:
As far as what didn't work goes, an easy thing to point at is the overall story. This is, essentially, "Dances with Wolves" set on an alien planet. But you know what? This is a story that has been told many, many times. Look at anything from "A Man Called Horse" to the biblical story of Moses. The story of men identifying with another people and aiding them in a fight for survival is thousands of years old. If you're going to have a familiar story, it's not a bad one to have. The only down side is that it is a bit predictable. If anything, that's what "Avatar" suffers from.

Along those lines, I almost wish I had gone into "Avatar" knowing absolutely nothing in advance. Having seen the trailers and commercials, it took away from some of the wonder of discovering the world of Pandora. The ads not only showed almost all of the environments and creatures, but it laid out the entire plot. Considering how much money Fox has invested in "Avatar," you can't expect them to not show anything, but it did steal some thunder from the film.

As a side note, I do plan to take my young kids to see this film. James Cameron does handle the topless Na'vi women in a non-gratuitous, National Geographic way. But I'll be the first to admit it will be a bit awkward for me and other parents. Ditto for a brief but awkward 'mating' scene involving our heroes. But I guess if I got Princess Leia in a gold bikini as a young boy, kids today will get something, too. Let's just hope it doesn't turn them into a legion of furries.

The Bottom Line:
"Avatar" is a fun, imaginative film that brings some popcorn flick excitement to an otherwise dreary holiday movie lineup. It should please sci-fi fans while dazzling general moviegoing audiences at the same time.

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