By John P. McCarthy/Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Among the most expensive and highly anticipated films ever produced, James Cameron’s science-fiction opus "Avatar" (Fox) has been ballyhooed, criticized and speculated on for months in the press, on the airwaves and in the blogosphere.
Generally speaking, this visually arresting, futuristic extravaganza lives up to the hype without representing the dawn of a new age of cinema.
Passages call to mind a Vietnam War flick, a Western — pitting bellicose interlopers against natives in harmony with their natural environment — and a Disney animated musical. This accessibility doesn’t mean "Avatar" is suitable for all viewers, however, mostly because of the intensity of the combat violence and the amount of inappropriate language.
Set 145 years from today — or 157 years after Cameron conquered our world astride "Titanic" — the story centers around paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who travels to the planet Pandora where a public-private partnership is extracting a mineral crucial to sustaining life back on Earth.
A handful of scientists, alongside a massive security force, are charged with helping tame the jungle terrain and its semi-humanoid natives. Together with botanist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Jake endeavors to "win the hearts and minds" of the indigenous Pandorans, the Na’vi.
The 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned Na’vi resemble a cross between giant humans and upright lemurs. They’re feral and prone to hissing like cats, but also have a serene, deeply spiritual side. Using cutting-edge technology, Jake controls a genetically engineered Na’vi avatar with his own consciousness. Under the tutelage of a princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), this surrogate joins the Na’vi clan dwelling above the richest mineral deposit.
In addition to assimilating for peaceful, research purposes, Jake has agreed to spy on the Na’vi for the project’s gung-ho head of security, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who promises to get Jake’s legs repaired in exchange for military intelligence. Eventually, after falling in love with Neytiri and immersing himself in her culture, Jake is forced to choose between the Na’vi and his own rapacious species.
Cameron and his legion of computer technicians and craftspeople have designed a breathtaking world, replete with fluorescent fauna and fierce creatures resembling prehistoric rhinos, panthers, dogs, horses and raptors. The tension never dissipates as thrilling action sequences alternate fluidly with developments inside the stations from which Jake operates his avatar — Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans — culminating in a destructive battle between the Na’vi and heavily armed earthlings.
Of particular interest– and perhaps concern — to Catholic viewers will be the Na’vi’s pantheistic eco-religion. They worship a goddess called Eywa, or All Mother, who has a material, biological foundation. Every living thing on Pandora is linked by a network of energy, and the Na’vi commune with their surroundings via glowing stuff in their tails that looks like angel-hair pasta.
Such scenes are deployed, of course, to communicate a not-so-subtle "green" lesson. But whether we are meant to consider the Na’vi faith as a model for humanity or merely as the indigenous cult of a distant planet remains unclear.
Cameron’s strongest storytelling tools are visual and, despite hiring a linguist to invent the Na’vi language, his screenplay — which suffers from its attempts to be overly topical — hasn’t been given the same attention as the technical side of the production. Still, the lapses in the script are relatively minor.
In sum, "Avatar" has enough soul to avoid foundering in its ocean of digitally sharpened special effects. Both the scale and quality of Cameron’s achievement are impressive.
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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
The film contains frightening action sequences with much intense, war-related violence, an implied sexual encounter, partial upper female and rear nudity, a consistently sensual undercurrent, frequent profanity, and considerable crude and crass language. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.