High-tech whizbangery battles Stone Age storytelling in James Cameron's 3-D pixelpazoola Avatar 

Technological advancement happens so quickly nowadays, clipping along at such a ridiculously exponential rate of progress, that it's become easy to shrug off the latest miracle. If I could travel back in time 25 years and show my teenage self all the wonders of the Internet, his overly sebaceous head would explode—but when the iPod materialized just a few years after the WWW, making manifest one of Teen Me's wildest dreams (my entire music collection in my pocket, with a shuffle function), I was already jaded enough to take it in stride. Marvels have become so commonplace that awe has been replaced by an odd sense of entitlement: Of course!

All of which is to say that Avatar, James Cameron's long-awaited follow-up to Titanic, is one of the most remarkable achievements in motion picture history, and yet who really cares? Cameron first announced the project back in 1996, claiming that his vision was so far-reaching that he might have to wait years for the state of the art to catch up. Turns out he wasn't kidding: The avatars in Avatar—giant blue-skinned extraterrestrials, some of which are "inhabited" (for lack of a better word) by human beings lying prone miles away—are by far the most photorealistic imaginary creatures ever devised. Their jungle world, likewise, makes previous CGI environments seem remote and insubstantial by comparison. Take this movie back to 1984 and the gasping would never stop. But arriving as it does on the heels of a series of incremental digital revolutions—arguably dating back to Cameron's own Terminator 2Avatar comes across as merely the next obvious step, leaving us free to look right past its singular visual effects and be only marginally absorbed by its clunky, painfully derivative storyline.

As a matter of fact, for all its techno-splendor, Avatar essentially amounts to a sci-fi remake of Dances With Wolves. Replacing the Native Americans are the Na'vi ("native" with E.T. removed—cute), a primitive-looking humanoid species communing peacefully with nature on a jungle moon called Pandora. Unfortunately, the tribe's primary digs are situated directly atop a big hunk of "unobtainium," which Earth needs to reverse its own environmental catastrophe. Preferring a diplomatic solution, the Earthly colonizers engineer hybrid Na'vi bodies to be controlled by the brainwaves of supine grunts—including paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who's drafted into the project after his identical twin brother, a scientist whose DNA was used to harvest an expensive avatar, is suddenly killed. At first, Jake merely exults in the euphoric feeling of being able to hop, skip and jump again; gradually, however, he begins to...well, to go Na'vi, thanks in large part to his growing love for Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, sort of), a lithe, blue-skinned hottie in an extremely skimpy outfit. Will he lead the revolt against his own people? Does a motion-captured bear shit in the computer-generated woods?

It's impossible not to be wowed for at least a few minutes by the ease with which Cameron shifts back and forth between the Earthlings' base camp (shot in live-action, albeit with plentiful digital amendments) and Pandora's jungles and forests (which, along with the Na'vi themselves, are entirely CGI). Maybe it was watching the film in 3-D—a process that tends to make even the most mundane set appear vaguely surreal—but both environments truly have an equal physical presence; you never feel as if you've suddenly exited the real and entered the artificial. And while the Na'vi were anticipated by Gollum and King Kong, among other recent miracles of motion-capture, they represent a quantum leap in the nuances of facial expression, to the point where you could almost swear it's the actors themselves in really stunning makeup. All of the nearly imperceptible muscular movements that disappear when someone goes overboard with the Botox are perfectly rendered here; Zoë Saldana never actually appears onscreen, yet there's no question that we're seeing her full performance in Neytiri's eyes.

Trouble is, Neytiri is about as interesting and memorable as Stands With A Fist. (I had to look that name up.) Cameron's wizardry may be too effective for its own good—he makes his otherworldly beings and fantastic locale so naturalistic that they can't distract you for long from the characters' one-dimensional pulpiness or the narrative's plodding inevitability. As Jake, the relatively unknown Worthington gives his bland dialogue an amusingly dry spin, but he can't do much more with this stock Reluctant Hero, who's surrounded by other stick figures from Cameron's stable: the Weaselly Corporate Scumbag (Giovanni Ribisi), the Psychopathic Military Badass (Stephen Lang), and Sigourney Weaver (Sigourney Weaver). Granted, Avatar boasts some reasonably exciting action sequences, but not enough to fill up a three-hour picture; there's a whole lot of dull exposition, sappy romance and back-to-nature boilerplate to endure.

Speaking of which, there's a bizarre irony in seeing so much hardware and software employed in service of a film that so firmly allies itself with a non-tech society. Cameron sometimes works to split the difference, even going so far as to have the Na'vi plug their ponytails into the pterodactyl-like "banshees" they ride, as if these creatures have a sort of biological USB port. In the end, though, Avatar is yet another Hollywood movie that romanticizes the alleged purity of people in loincloths, creating a patronizing and simplistic dichotomy between technology and nature—as if space stations are somehow less "natural" than beaver dams. Which is the very line, actually, that Avatar's mundanely sensational F/X strives to erase.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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