Review: Avatar

James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster is jaw-dropping, epic and kind of ridiculous.

James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster is jaw-dropping, epic and kind of ridiculous

Ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, left) is sent to establish a human settlement on the planet Pandora, where he falls in love with humanoid Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in James Cameron's Avatar. ((20th Century Fox))

Only a filmmaker who once declared himself "king of the world" would have the ego to attempt something like Avatar, a nearly three-hour movie with an estimated $300-million US price tag that features characters who look like pointy-eared castoffs from the Blue Man Group.

Avatar is every bit as bloated and cornball as you'd expect from the man who made Titanic (1997), but that won't matter much once viewers slap on their 3-D shades and experience the fully realized universe James Cameron has spent the better part of the past 12 years creating.

The movie begins in the year 2154, when everyone on ecologically bankrupt Earth has a vested interest in a distant planet named Pandora. In addition to studying its flora and fauna, scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) wants to improve relations with Pandora's inhabitants, a band of lanky blue natives known as the Na'vi tribe. Grace's corporate boss, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), outwardly endorses this well-meaning endeavour, but is far more interested in mining the valuable mineral, unobtainium, that lies nestled beneath the Na'vi's carefully guarded home turf.

Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine whose DNA makes him a perfect candidate for Grace's innovative avatar program. By lying down in long cylindrical tubes — which look like MRI machines crossed with tanning beds — the program's members can be transported. While their bodies remain safely on Earth, their minds inhabit and control half-human, half-Na'vi blue avatars that roam freely in the lush Pandora forests.

Jake is hooked from the moment his avatar arrives on Pandora, and we can hardly blame him. The planet is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with Na'vis living inside enormous treetops, evading rhino beasts with hammerhead snouts or riding giant pterodactyl horses across tufty pink skies that evoke a Roxy Music album cover. This is pure fantasy, and there's something a little dizzying about how complete this world feels, as if Cameron is downloading images straight out of his imagination onto the screen.

He pulls this off with a seamless blend of CGI, performance capture, animation and 3-D effects that is wholly convincing. After the initial awe wears off, the Na'vis' flicking devil tails and facial expressions become very fluid and lifelike, which is all the better since Jake spends the last two-thirds of the movie among them, eventually falling in love and mating with a spunky, nubile creature named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who invites him into her tribe and tutors him in the Na'vi customs and beliefs.

This romance creates a lot of inner conflict for Jake, who's ostensibly a mole – gaining the Na'vi peoples' trust for the benefit of Grace and the science geeks, but also memorizing details of the Pandora terrain for Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a military man with nefarious plans of his own. But as Neytiri notes, Jake has a "strong heart" and there's really no question which side he'll take when the inevitable showdown between the big bad Earthlings and the tree-hugging natives occurs.

Halfway through Avatar, it becomes apparent that for all of the dazzling visuals, Cameron still doesn't know how to write dialogue or characters of any depth. The people in Avatar are mostly stock types with a flair for clichés, from the crusty colonel who shouts "You're not in Kansas anymore!" to Neytiri, who spouts pearls like "You cannot fill a jar that's already full." The actors all do their damnedest to make this bunk plausible, with Worthington and Saldana in particular trying to channel Leo and Kate under the weight of all the animation and earnest dialogue. Only Ribisi and Lang, performing their respective baddie roles with moustache-twirling gusto, appear to be having any fun.

Political allegories abound, a fact Cameron hammers home when Col. Quaritch attempts to invade the Na'vi homeland and starts ranting about fighting "terror with terror." While this is heavy-handed, it's far less troubling than Avatar's weird undoing of its own central themes. The movie appears to critique American corporate greed, but every frame of Avatar reeks of money being spent. And for all of the pacifistic, New Age mumbo-jumbo Sigourney Weaver is forced to deliver – while in blueface and wearing Bo Derek braids, no less – the movie culminates with heavy-metal battle scenes that are all about the joy of blowing things up real good.

Any human drama that Worthington and Saldana manage to generate is drowned out by the noisy pyrotechnics, and by film's end, you might find yourself feeling as divided as Worthington's conflicted hero. A lot of Avatar is ridiculous – how else to describe a movie where bikini-clad warriors speak in a patois that recalls Jodie Foster in Nell? But it's also impossible to ignore the film's technical innovations.

In the end, it's probably best to check your brain at the door, embrace Avatar for the popcorn-chomping trash it secretly is and accept the truism that most sci-fi audiences already know: You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Avatar opens Dec. 18.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.