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Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-

“Terminator Salvation” a crashing disappointment

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

When I heard the mastermind behind such perennial classics as, ahem, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” had signed on to direct the fourth installment in the “Terminator” series, I was apprehensive.

When I heard he’d gallantly dubbed himself “McG,” the apprehension turned into dread. 

When I finally saw “Terminator Salvation,” that dread led me to the realization of a hardy truth: The only one-named celebrities worth caring about are the ones with the talent to match their egos.

Here is where McG fails so magnificently. Oh, sure, he’s great with lightning-quick cuts and smash-and-grab action sequences. He has an enviable ability to desaturate colors and present us with a bleak landscape. He can film a fight scene from every conceivable angle. He’s so pleased with these talents, in fact, that that’s all he wants to show us. Hand-to-hand combat. Explosions. Terminators blown to McTerminator nuggets. For almost two hours. This bloody mayhem wouldn’t be so disappointing if there was the slightest whiff of an intriguing story to tell. There isn’t (the superb “T2: Judgment Day” and the just-above-average “T3” ruined that). And so McG blows everything up to distract us.

For awhile, this almost works. When the actors show up, it becomes painfully clear they have nothing to do but try their best to lend humanity to a movie that has none. As Marcus Wright, an ex-con cryogenically reborn into 2018 post-Judgment Day America, Sam Worthington does the best job. Wright, who donated his body to science, awakens to find the world leveled by a homicidal, self-aware Skynet (damn, those robots are quick studies) and its army of Terminators. Resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale doing his best “Batman voice”) can’t decide why Marcus has arrived, and his presence raises many questions. Was he sent from the future or the past? Is he hell-bent on killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a key player in Connor’s storyline, or delivering the boy unharmed to Connor? Or the most important question: In a gravelly voice contest, could Marcus beat J.C.? (The correct answer to question no. five is a resounding “no.”)

The answers to these questions I will not provide; that’s a fact-finding mission viewers must take themselves. “Terminator” fans should gird their loins, for this is a grim, tedious trip that will yield minimally satisfactory answers. The huge blowouts and Terminator/human fights, so impressive at first, wear down our patience, and there’s no viable human-centered story to win it back. (Note: There are plenty of movies — like “Rambo” or “Predator” — that don’t need plots to move forward. “Terminator” belongs not in this short list.)

Not surprisingly, watching the actors struggle against the tide of McG’s inadequacies is disheartening. Who didn’t have astronomical hopes for Christian Bale as John Connor? The top-notch actor seems out of his depth here. Maybe he’s distracted by the action, overwhelmed by his I-don’t-break-character-till-the-DVD-commentary-intensity. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dissolve into Connor the way he did into scores of other characters (“El Maquinista” comes to mind). He thinks furrowing his brow and whispering in a creaky, ravaged voice equals great acting. Wrong. He’s playing Christian Bale playing John Connor, and that’s not the Bale his fans (me included) know and love. Exchanging Claire Danes for Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t feel like trading up, either, but blame that on the script: Howard has nothing to do but look pregnant and pained. Moon Bloodgood, who has some pluck, is funneled into the love interest role and does what little she can. Yelchin’s better than this, too.

But Worthington … he deserves a second look. The American accent certainly needs work, but he has an interesting mix of bravado and vulnerability not seen since, well … pre-“Terminator” Christian Bale. There’s something about his eyes that suggests he can do more than slug bad guys and kiss hot chicks. Here’s to hoping he tries again, and soon.

As for McG, unless he gets over himself, I suspect he’ll keep trying to live his heart’s desire to become Michael Bay. Which, sadly, he won’t. Michael Bay, you see, has the good sense to use both of his names.

Grade: C