By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin December 20, 2009 at 4:33AM
Avatar is at once a fascinating and a frustrating movie. I found much of it captivating, and while I resist the hype-driven phrase “immersive experience,” I did find myself drawn into its 3-D world, an extraordinarily rich cinematic environment created, in breathtaking detail, by artists and computers. I didn’t think I could care about odd-looking humanoid characters, but I did. I didn’t think I would relate to the interaction between humans and aliens, but I did. Writer-director James Cameron has delivered on his promise to take filmmaking to another level by fully realizing his imaginative visual concepts of character and design...and by turning the 3-D process inside out by pulling us through the looking glass instead of...
sticking things out at us across the proscenium.
As for the performance-capture technology that transforms actors into the elongated Na’vi creatures of Avatar, Cameron has left his competitors in the dust. The character design is striking and appealing to the eye; at a certain point you forget you’re watching imagined figures, just as you do in a good animated cartoon. The difference here is that the performances were rendered on-camera by live actors whose work was enhanced and extended by animators. By retaining a crucial part of their facial structure—chiefly their nose, mouth, and chin—they retain their most human facial qualities, and their eyes respond naturally (a chief complaint about some other performance-capture films). Both the process and the illusion are revealed early on when we see Sigourney Weaver as her Na’vi avatar and still recognize the actress.
I also like his casting choices for this futuristic saga. New to American audiences, Australian actor Sam Worthington (whom we saw earlier this year in Terminator: Salvation) has the intensity and charisma to play a disabled Marine who doesn’t have the scientific background—or the emotional discipline—for his new assignment on the planet Pandora, but steps into his late brother’s shoes just the same. Zoë Saldana (who was Uhura in this year’s Star Trek) is quite captivating as Neytiri, the fearless Na’vi woman who becomes Worthington’s savior and guide in a strange new world. And Cameron movie veteran Weaver hits just the right note as a chain-smoking, no-nonsense scientist who has devoted herself completely to studying the flora and fauna of Pandora and befriending its people.
Cameron gets so many things right—the technology, the design, the immersive environment, the staging of breathtaking action scenes—that it’s a shame the film falters because of weaknesses in his screenplay. It’s not a problem at first, but as the story reaches its second and third acts it becomes a real liability, with heavy-handed villainy and amateurish dialogue that might have come from a Saturday matinee serial. Overlength also works against the film: had the story been compressed from its two-and-a-half hour duration one might be more forgiving of its flaws. I was gripped by the first portion of the movie, then found my mind straying past the one-hour mark, only to be caught up once again before the lumbering finale—a spectacular action sequence that clumsily underscores the movie’s metaphoric roots (invoking the Iraq war, as well as environmentalism) and turns its principal bad guy, a Marine colonel played by Stephen Lang, into an unstoppable Terminator.
Does this render Avatar worthless? Absolutely not. Some of it is positively thrilling, and a lot of it is just plain fun. I don’t think it’s unfair to complain about its shortcomings after it’s been touted as the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming...but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the extraordinary things it does achieve. It’s a remarkable moviegoing experience.