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Photos: The world of ‘Avatar’

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  1. 'Star Wars' for a new generation?

    The most talked-about film of 2009-2010 is James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar." Its fantasy world on the planet Pandora has been compared to the "Star Wars" universe. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hero in blue, and as himself

    Sam Worthington portrays Jake Sully, a paralyzed veteran who finds joy, and the use of his legs, when his consciousness is transplanted into a lab-grown "Avatar," a giant body made to resemble the Na'vi people of the planet Pandora. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Behind blue skin

    Actress Zoe Saldana's real face was never seen in "Avatar," but her character, Neytiri, domainates the screen. She plays one of the Na'vi, a race of 10-feet-tall, blue-skinned creatures who live in harmony with nature. (20th Century Fox, Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tanked

    Jake meets his avatar, a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Trying out the new bod

    Frustrated by his paralysis in his human body, Jake can't wait to get started walking and running once he's awake in the fully functioning body of his Avatar. The Avatar was created to work with Jake's twin brother, a scientist, but when he is killed, an untrained Jake steps in. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Battle ready

    The humans on Pandora are well prepared for war. Their weapons include 16-foot-tall Amplified Mobility Platform suits as well as heavily armed gunships, which are paired against the simple arrows of the Na'vi. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. What a sight

    The humans are awed by the natural beauty of Pandora, which includes floating mountains, enormous trees that can house hundreds, and breathtaking flora. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. High in the sky

    Pandora's majestic floating mountains dwarf a massive gunship. A real Chinese mountain called the Southern Sky Column provided inspiration for the filmmakers, and the Chinese have since renamed it "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain." (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Plotting an attack

    Col. Miles Quaritch, right, plays on Jake's military background to try and enlist him to help bring down the Na'vi. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The guys with the ties are never good

    Scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), right, faces off numerous times against Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the Pandora station supervisor. Weaver's character reportedly was at once point named Shipley, an homage to her fierce character, Ellen Ripley, in Cameron's 1986 film "Aliens." (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Hang on tight

    The Thanators are just one of the numerous native species on Pandora. James Cameron described the creatures as "panthers from hell." (Weta / 20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Going against orders

    Helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez, a.k.a. Ana Lucia on "Lost") is a great help to the Na'vi in their climactic battle to save their planet. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Stomping grounds

    Col. Quaritch drives the AMP Suit, a formidable weapon in the humans' battle against the Na'vi. Fans of Cameron's "Aliens" may remember a similar suit being worn by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley as she fought to protect young surviving colonist Newt. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A film 15 years in the making

    "Avatar" director James Cameron reviews a scene with Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore and Sam Worthington. Cameron wrote an 80-page treatment for the film back in 1994, but says he had to wait for technology to catch up with his vision for the film. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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By
updated 12/14/2009 8:53:22 AM ET 2009-12-14T13:53:22
Review

When a film brashly asserts that it will change moviemaking forever, one feels the urge to either take its "king of the world" arrogance down a notch or hail it as the masterpiece it claims to be.

But — and forgive us if this sounds too much like the dialogue in President Obama's war room — what if there's a third option?

James Cameron's 3-D "Avatar" has all the smack of a Film Not To Miss — a movie whose effects are clearly revolutionary, a spectacle that millions will find adventure in. But it nevertheless feels unsatisfying and somehow lacks the pulse of a truly alive film.

"Avatar" takes place in the year 2154 on the faraway moon of Pandora, where, befitting its mythological name, the ills of human life have been released. The Earth depleted, humans have arrived to mine an elusive mineral, wryly dubbed Unobtainium.

The Resources Developmental Administration, a kind of military contractor, is running the operation. At the top of the chain of command is the CEO-like Carter Selfridge (an excellent, ruthless Giovanni Ribisi), who's hellbent on showing quarterly profits for shareholders. His muscle and head of security is the rock-jawed Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who curses Pandora's inhabitants (the Na'vi) as savages and considers the place worse than hell.

In fact, it's a paradise. In Pandora, Cameron has fashioned a sensual, neon-colored, dreamlike world of lush jungle, gargantuan trees and floating mountains. Its splendor is easily the most wondrous aspect of "Avatar."

Cameron, like the deep sea diver that he is (his only films since 1997's "Titanic" have been underwater documentaries), lets his camera peer with fascination at the glow-in-the-dark plant life, the six-legged horses and — especially beautiful — the nighttime frog-like creatures that, when touched, open a bright white sail and spiral into the air.

It's this sense of discovery — in Pandora, in the wizardry of the filmmaking — that makes "Avatar" often thrilling.

Our main character is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a brawny former Marine who lost the power of his legs in battle on Earth. His scientist twin brother has just died and Sully, having a matching genome, is invited to replace him in a mission to Pandora.

He joins a small group of scientists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are attempting to learn more about the Na'vi by conducting field studies and doing a bit of undercover science. They've created avatars of themselves to go about Pandora as a living, breathing Na'vi, while their human bodies lie dormant in a sort of tanning bed (they return to them when their avatars sleep).

The Na'vi are a 10-foot-tall species with translucent, aqua-colored skin, 3-fingered hands and smooth, lean torsos. They have long, neat dreadlocks for hair and wide, feline foreheads. The smart freckles on their brow faintly light up like tiny constellations.

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With beady headdresses and skimpy sashes, the Na'vi are clearly meant to evoke Native Americans, as well as similarly exploited tribes of South America and Africa. They pray over a slayed animal and feel at one with nature. Their tails (oh, yes, they also have tails) even connect — like nature's USB port — to things like mystical willow branches, horse manes or the hair of pterodactyl-like birds.

Video: King of the world It's no coincidence that the Na'vi chief Eyukan is played by the Cherokee actor Wes Studi, whose credits include "Dances with Wolves," perhaps the film most thematically akin to "Avatar."

"Avatar" is essentially a fairy tale that imagines a more favorable outcome for the oppressed fighting against the technology and might of Western Civilization. Sully, who quickly takes to life as a Na'vi, begins to feel his allegiances blurred.

Though he has promised Quaritch that he'll spy on the Na'vi (their home lies atop an Unobtainium deposit), he begins to appreciate their ways. He also falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na'vi princess and the one who introduces him to the tribe. Video: 'Avatar'

Many Na'vi are suspicious of Sully — "a demon in a fake body" — but they eventually embrace him. They accept him as a leader, even though he occasionally goes limp and vacant when his human body isn't connected. This off-switch makes for questionable leadership skills — as if George Washington had been a narcoleptic.

The inevitable battle has overt shades of current wars. Quaritch, drinking coffee during a bombing with a cavalier callousness like Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now," drops phrases like "pre-emptive strike," "fight terror with terror" and even "shock and awe," a term apparently destined to survive for centuries in the lexicon.

Video: 'Avatar: The Video Game' crashes and burns These historical and contemporary overtones bring the otherworldly "Avatar" down to Earth and down to cliche. The message of environmentalism and of (literal) tree-hugging resonates, but such a plainly just cause also saps "Avatar" of drama and complexity.

It's also a funny message coming from such a swaggering behemoth of technology like "Avatar." As for the effects, they are undeniable. 3-D has recently become en vogue, but only now has it been used with such a depth of field.

The movie is also a notable advance for performance capture, which is how the Na'vi were created. As was done with Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" and King Kong in "King Kong," the Na'vi were made with cameras and sensors recording the movements of the actors and transposing them onto the CGI creatures.

Seldom has this been done in a way that captured the most important thing — the eyes — but Cameron employed a new technology (a camera rigged like a helmet on the actors) to capture their faces up close. The green, flickering eyes of the Na'vi are a big step forward, but there's still an unmistakable emptiness to a movie so filled with digital creations.

Ultimately, the technology of "Avatar" isn't the problem — moviemaking, itself, is an exercise in technology. But one need look no further than Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to see how technique — whether it be antique stop-motion animation or state-of-the-art 3-D performance capture — can find soulfulness at 24 frames per second.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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