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NOMINEE:
Visual Effects (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)

Theatrical Release Date: 12/18/2009
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso

It’s been 12 years since James Cameron released a feature film (you know, that little independent film about a dingy and a whiny brat who couldn’t freeze and drown fast enough in my opinion). All snarkiness aside, how do you follow up the highest grossing film of all time ($1.8 Billion)? Well by spending a reported $500 million dollars to make a new film, once marketing costs are thrown into the total. That’s right, the much anticipated “Avatar”, purporting to be a technological revolution in cinema, came with a price tag of half a billion dollars (they’re well on their way to a congressional bailout plan).

So was all that money and hype worth it? Well … sort of. For the sake of mixing things up, I’ll start with the negative. For what seems like an eternity, I had been hearing about the special effects and 3D technology that “Avatar” was going to present. Much of the push towards the third dimension on-screen has been a result, even if sometimes indirectly, because of Cameron’s work on this film and his upcoming “Battle Angel” (whose release date changes more than Lady GaGa switches insane outfits).

Well, the 3D is simply unimpressive and seemingly non-existent for much of the film. Aside from a chase scene through the jungle, there doesn’t seem to be much depth of perspective to any of the scenes … oh wait, I forgot about the most impressive display of the third dimension, a shot of some characters sitting in a detention room. Yes, you read that right – out of all the ballyhooed fighting (which doesn’t happen until the end of the film) and no matter how much flying happens, the only time I really stopped to appreciate that I was wearing stiff plastic glasses over my own prescription kind was to appreciate the sense of depth while people sit inside a jail cell.

I would so much rather have seen this in 2D and just enjoyed the rather good motion capture and CGI that Cameron and his technical team managed to put together. As so much of the film relies on green screen and composited elements, it’s a testament to those responsible that everything felt tangible and natural. The fluorescent jungle plants were quite beautiful and what’s not to like about the monstrous, carnivorous beasts that co-exist with the tall, gangly Smurfs that inhabit this alien world.

Speaking of which, the level of emotive capacity on the aliens’ faces is right there at Gollum levels (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy still sets the bar for CGI/mo-cap characters). I didn’t spend much time at all trying to dissect any technical flaws from this aspect and instead was able to concentrate on enjoying the film, which is obviously how it should be.

Now while the script isn’t going to win any awards, as it’s rather generic and the dialogue rates little praise, one of the more distracting elements was the connection I kept making to my favorite James Cameron film, “Aliens”. The most obvious element is Sigourney Weaver, who doesn’t get to kick much ass in the film but plays an integral role and is well cast I must say.

However, the manner in which Giovanni Ribisi comprises the Paul Reiser role is what seems so lazy in the storytelling. Ribisi is the guy in charge of the mining operation on the planet, solely concerned about the bottom line to shareholders rather than the well-being of the native inhabitants sitting on top of a large reserve of Unobtanium (and yes, that’s really the name they use for the precious ore). I’m honestly not sure why Cameron didn’t just give Reiser a call, according to IMDb he hasn’t had a role since 2005, so there shouldn’t have been a scheduling conflict. Whatever.

Now on to the good stuff, as I’m fond of mentioning, films tend to work largely because of the antagonist. if you don’t have a good villain, you’re way behind the eight ball. So a tremendous amount of the film’s success must be credited to its’ villain, Stephen Lang. As the chief jarhead on the planet, he’s in charge of the mining operations’ security and eager to displace any non-Earthlings hesitant to relocate (this brings about an analogy to America’s treatment of Native Americans but at least that seems more apropos). Lang’s performance is strong, direct and completely in line with how his role should be portrayed.

Trying to best Lang’s military might is Sam Worthington, who I would pick as the breakthrough actor of 2009. He was the single best element of a so-so addition to the Terminator franchise this summer and here again manages to infuse a rather stock idea of a character with pathos and a relatability for audiences. As a paraplegic marine assigned to a new program of transferring one’s consciousness into an alien body, he had double duty and was up to the task of playing flesh and blood as well as doing a fantastic job of voice acting that was synced up well by the motion capture team.

Zoe Saldana gets to claim herself queen of sci-fi for 2009, what with playing Uhura in “Star Trek” and now as Princess Neytiri, the alien that Worthington falls in love with in this film. While we never get to see Saldana in her own skin, so to speak, her performance via voice acting and the computer team’s help meshed quite well and helped make the relationship work as well as it did.

The rest of the supporting cast did fine, though I’m a little tired of seeing Michelle Rodriguez get the tough girl roles. While everyone loves a paycheck and far be it from me to say I would refuse being typecast if it meant a house on the beach, it’d be nice to see her branch out a little more or for casting agents to find other actresses every once in a while.

Now onto the action front, the final battle does include some fun stuff … the only problem is that you have to reach your happy place those first 2 hours before anything really kicks off, confrontationally speaking. I did so, finding Worthington’s performance and his interaction with the aliens interesting enough to forgive this aspect but I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for much more gunfire and bloodshed (lots of people and aliens die but you don’t get any blood).

Now only time will tell if the companies financing this effort will make back their huge investments, or if “Avatar” will join “Terminator: Salvation” and “A Christmas Carol” in disappointing stockholders and possibly nix any sequel ideas. This is somewhat important as Cameron mentioned in an interview with TIME magazine that he’d like to turn this into a franchise (“Avatar 2: The Marines Strike Back”?). While I’m not going to be at the vanguard of that movement, it’s hard to argue with his track record and I enjoyed this effort enough to see if another trip to this distant world might be worth the time, effort and extra mountains of cash it would require.

A 3.5 out of 5, I was happily surprised by how entertained I was with “Avatar”. I had expected to get great technical aspects and to be bored out of mind with the 162 minute runtime and a touchy-feely story. Instead, I found Worthington and Saldana’s performances balanced out the hokey elements and was left nonplussed by the computer/3D wizardry. Fans of Cameron’s work will find much to like here and it’s probably the least depressing film being released over the next two weeks, non counting Alvin, Simon and Theodore returning to haunt parents’ dreams. It’s worth seeing in a theater but save the extra cash and skip the lackluster 3D, apparently even James Cameron can’t quite get a live-action film to incorporate the technology in a meaningful way yet so we’ll just have to see if his upcoming “Battle Angel” can live up to the promise once held for this.