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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Avatar immerses audiences in an alien ecosystem

click to enlarge CATMAN DO: Sully (Sam Worthington, left) learns the ways of the Na'vi from Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).
  • CATMAN DO: Sully (Sam Worthington, left) learns the ways of the Na'vi from Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).

Every 3-D movie has at least one pokey part. Even a smart, visually intriguing film such as Henry Selick's Coraline or Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf eventually goes out of its way to thrust something like a conspicuous needle or spear tip at the audience. As if the glasses weren't reminder enough, the filmmakers invariably make a big joke of the fact that you're watching a 3-D presentation. But 3-D effects seldom transcend gimmickry – they can't literally touch audiences, and they can't figuratively touch them, either.

Director James Cameron's long-awaited Avatar depicts an alien race with a fondness for bows and arrows, but keeps the 3-D jutting clichés under control. Even when bloody arrowheads stick out at your face, Cameron ensures the stunts don't distract from his otherworldly story. Avatar's innovative imagery affirms that some kinds of cinematic special effects can indeed touch audiences, if not on the emotional or intellectual level. If rendered properly, make-believe places, characters and events can have a seductive, escapist appeal, from King Kong's Skull Island to Star Wars' alien landscapes.

Avatar strives to not only reach the levels of those films, but to raise the bar for genre fantasies to come. Years of hype have held Avatar to be a paradigm-shifting, game-changing tipping point that will alter the way we watch movies until the end of recorded time, etc. Cameron faces planetary-sized expectations for his first narrative film (not counting a couple of documentaries) since Titanic became the highest-grossing film in history. Avatar probably won't be a Titanic-sized phenomenon, but the director and his army of technicians make an industrious effort to tell an old kind of story in a new kind of way.

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(Photo Courtesy WETA)

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