Avatar ★★★½

James Cameron's allegorical storytelling is far too obvious, his characters are wafer thin, and his dialogue is not good and sometimes downright terrible. So how is it that this mad Canadian wizard still manages to hook me every time, even when I think the design of his aliens and their world is pastel, black-lit crap?

"Avatar" borrows from American history, "Dances with Wolves", "Ferngully" and countless other sources...and yet it's still effective. Sam Worthington is a blank slate the center of this film. He's not terrible, exactly, but there's a reason his career hasn't taken off after this movie. Stephen Lang's delivery of every single line of overcooked dialogue is completely tone deaf as the villain of the piece, Col. Quaritch, and Giovanni Ribisi doesn't fare much better as the stooge there to represent the evils of modern corporations. As I said, most of these characters are lucky to have a single dimension, let alone three. And yet, as heavily flawed and derivative as it is, as bad as much of the dialogue is, James Cameron has a knack for grabbing our emotions and holding them that most modern blockbuster filmmakers seem entirely to lack. He's very old fashioned in his storytelling, which means he knows how to structure a story and knows what moments to include in order to goose a tale's maximum impact. And he's very cutting edge in terms of the tools he uses to tell such a story. This marriage of solid, old-school storytelling chops and next level technical wizardry is what makes him successful. Niceties such as good dialogue and well-developed characters have rarely been his strength and yet, time and time again, that seems almost beside the point when watching a Cameron film.

Not only that, but he seems sincere about the ideas that drive "Avatar", things like respecting nature and other cultures and striving for peace rather than war. He seems almost to have taken a page out of the Hayao Miyazaki playbook here (though I certainly wish he would crib a few more pages for good measure) by emphasizing such concerns. Using these ideas as the backbone of a big, corporate-funded blockbuster filled with explosions and spectacle would be offensive if you didn't get the sense that James Cameron actually cares about these things, that he's passionate about these ideas and can only express them in this silly special effects extravaganza filled with giant blue-skinned cat people. That passion, surprisingly, comes through in every frame of this film. It elevates this material every step of the way. Not only that, but the movie looks absolutely gorgeous. The blue people looked dumb to me in the trailers, but they and their environments work perfectly in the finished product, looking nearly photo-realistic most of the time.

Part of me wants to hate this movie, has good reason to, but I can't. An equal part of me wants to rave about this film and say how powerful it is, but I can't quite do that either. Though, as I mentioned, it is very sincere for a blockbuster and one must admire the subversiveness of its making humans the bad guys, rubbing our American noses in our shameful history and getting us to root against what are essentially avatars (sorry) of our own forefathers. Plenty of classic films have flaws (for a prime example, look no further than John Ford's "The Searchers"), sometimes quite glaring ones, but if the stuff that works works well enough, those flaws cease to matter. "Avatar" isn't a classic, but the things that work do work well enough to smooth over whatever Lang and Worthington are doing and lines about how the indigenous population of the planet wants to "kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes" (ugh). The action is genuinely rousing and the performances that do work (Zoe Saldana is fantastic here and Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver are impressive) work very, very well.

It's got problems, sure, but unlike other blockbuster entertainment like the "Transformers" series or "Twilight", it has enough meat to it that you can't dismiss it entirely.

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