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I always try to avoid learning too much about a film before I see it. Reading other critics' reviews is out -- I'm the Movie Critic Next Door because I'm not a professional and I don't know what I'm doing. Wait, that didn't come out right. I mean I'm not supposed to sound like every other film critic out there... and, well, I'm pretty sure I've succeeded at that, for better or for worse. The point is, I try to go to the theatre knowing the bare minimum about the plot, and this time I tried especially hard because I kept hearing whispers about how not everyone thought this was a wonderful film. If there were people whispering that, though, they're currently being drowned out by all the fans shrieking about the special effects.

They're worth shrieking about, though. They're amazing. Most of the time, you can't tell where live action ends and whatever freakishly cool computer imaging they were using begins, and it's stunning. Giant, blue-striped, vaguely cat-like humanoid aliens seem to live and breathe, surviving on a planet where basically everything has a burning desire to kill and eat something else. There's a beastie that looks something like a cross between a panther and a catfish that could run you down and rip your head off without breaking a sweat -- and it's far from the toughest thing in that jungle.

But I'm getting ahead of the plot. Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright from the latest Terminator flick) plays Marine Jake Sully. Ex-Marine, technically, since a spinal cord injury has left him confined to a wheelchair. Through a strange twist of fate (aka a necessary plot point), he's ended up on a planet called Pandora, clearly named for the fact that said planet contains every dangerous thing in the universe, like the legend of Pandora's Box. But students of this legend will recall that in some versions of the tale, Pandora's Box also contained Hope, to make up for the nasty things like War and Famine. Pandora also means all-gifted, though, and the movie won't let you forget that part for a second.

Pandora's natives are at a level of technology where poisoned arrows are about the peak of military achievement. It's an untamed, gorgeous planet, where nearly everything glows in the dark and if you don't know when to stand still and when to run, you'll quickly find yourself on the menu. But, beneath this lush, deadly surface lies treasure, and the Sky People (Earthlings) want it. The treasure is a mineral that sells for about twenty million dollars a kilo (which, even allowing for what inflation must have done by the year 2154, is pretty considerable). And it's called unobtainium. You probably think I'm kidding, but that's seriously the name of it. Poor Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) has to say it twice with a straight face, and I don't know how he managed.

Giovanni plays the desk jockey in charge of decimating the planet and turning its natural resources to his company's advantage, a guy named Carter Burke. I mean, a guy named Parker Selfridge, who's actually even worse than Carter Burke. Stephen Lang (also from Public Enemies) plays Colonel Miles Quaritch, who's seriously scary. And scarry. He runs the security team on Pandora, made up mainly of ex-military like himself. He also, foolishly, tries to push around Sigourney Weaver, who plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a botanist who's in charge of the science team. Like Clint Eastwood, she's not getting any less intimidating with the passage of time.

The Avatar program allows the scientists to "go native" in a big way. Because of this, they've learned a great deal about the indigenous population -- except they still haven't learned the one thing the military wing of the operation wants to know, namely, how to make them realize they're being selfish by refusing to leave their ancestral land and the giant tree they live in so that the big ugly bulldozers can scoop up all that lovely unobtainium. I can't even type that with a straight face.

Would you believe I still can't decide how to rank this? Because I can't. Ranking the special effects is easy: Five out of five, all the way. The acting gets a solid four and a half. But the plot... oh, the plot. It's only there to hang the special effects on, because that's totally all people care about these days, right? And I can't, just can't, bring myself to give that plot more than two out of five, even aside from the one nagging error I spotted. Maybe I'm just bitter. It started out great -- I couldn't wait to find out all about the planet's mysteries. Then, when we started finding out, it became like those old vaudeville acts, where someone would hold up signs telling the audience when to cheer, when to boo, etc. That bothered me, frankly. At the risk of sounding hopelessly un-trendy and harsh, I would have much preferred to see realistic situations and characters on Pandora, to go with the realistic effects -- characters with both good and evil in them -- and make up my own mind about who I might want to cheer for... if anyone.

Oh, and I still need a ranking. *sigh* Five + four and a half + two/3 = 3.8333, which isn't too far off, I guess. Even though it was way too long and by the end of the second hour I felt like the seat was carved from stone, you don't get the full visual impact outside the theatre. So 3.8 out of five it is, and I'll take the abuse from those who think I rated it too low, because I feel like I rated it too high. And I'll even offer up a patent pending MCND Fun Fact -- some of you may have seen a recent episode of Bones, where several characters were taking turns waiting in a huge line to get good seats for the premiere of Avatar. One of those characters, Colin Fisher, is played by Joel Moore, who plays science guy Norm Spellman in the film. Kudos to whoever came up with that idea.

Originally posted December 2009

Image: 
Glowing plants on Pandora. Still only one-fifth as cool as on the big screen.

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