Film review: Alien sex and cinematic wonders in 'Avatar'

Posted at 12/21/2009 8:07 PM | Updated as of 12/22/2009 7:42 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Hear that scraping sound?

That's the sound of eyeballs trying to do a 360-degree turn in cinemas while taking in the vistas of Titanic director James Cameron's wondrous yet irritatingly familiar eco-fable about giant blue monkeys saving the environment.

A decade after proclaiming himself "king of the world", Cameron is back with a blockbuster film, this time trying to draw gold from well-worn tropes like industries destroying ecology, and civilization crumbling under greed.

One thing's for sure, you'd have to credit Cameron for having the moolah to bring his daydreams to thespic life.

An hour into the movie, viewers will forget the actual number of zeroes spent on this monstrosity (reportedly $300 million) and wonder, "Where, oh, where do we book a ticket to this green hell of a planet called Pandora?"

What's it about?

The story is simple enough.

Military man Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, of "Terminator: Salvation" fame) is offered the post of manning an "avatar" or cloned alien life form in Pandora, which has a non-breathable atmosphere for humans.

Sully lost the use of his legs after his last stint in military service and is excited to try out the new technology that allows him to jack in his consciousness to a new body.

On the new planet, he is given two missions: gain the trust of the planet's natives called the Na'Vi and gather information that would help his corporate bosses to root out the mother lode of a rare mineral mockingly called "unobtainium."

The mineral costs millions of dollars.

In typical "Dances With Wolves" fashion, Sully goes native, falls in love with a Na'Vi female, tries to stop the fuzz and becomes savior of the entire planet.

Cinematic must-see

I'm of two minds about this movie after watching it at a regular, non-3D, non-IMax cinema last week.

One half still has trouble processing what I've seen and fuels the urge to see it again and again.

We've seen glimpses of such world-building before, in Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth and Skull Island; and Steven Spielberg's Isla Nublar.

Cameron's Pandora even bears a passing resemblance to one of those planets in the last of the Star Wars prequels. (Note: It's the planet where Jedi Aayla Secura bites the dust in Revenge of the Sith and starts at 2:42 of this video.)

In creating Pandora, Cameron ditches the clutches of the familiar and plunges headlong into dream territory.

It's the elation of discovering a world completely wondrous and beautiful, of passing the familiar into the realm of the alien.

Less the "shock-and-awe" of Michael Bay's "Transformers" and more a Jurassic Park adventure ride, the first hour is so astounding that it is a cinematic "must-see"--the kind that needs to be experienced at least once.

Downhill from alien sex scene?

Strangely, the narrative loses its tautness halfway through the movie and after (ahem) alien sex between Sully and Zoe Saldaña's character, Neytiri.

This is Cameron, after all, who is still a romantic at heart (see: Abyss, Titanic, Aliens).

Under all that militaristic hoo-ha, Cameron's characters always have that tinge of humanity that keep them from being stock characters from the cinematic action bible.

That said, the decade-long rest from directing seems to have softened the auteur's previously deft hand at tweaking the narrative just enough to keep people from losing interest.

The alien sex scene is probably the worse offender, but is just one of many missteps.

There's cookie-cutter dialogue from almost everybody and a strange alien dance that reminded me of Fraggle Rock.

Weighty message

Also clichéd to the point of boredom is the soundtrack by James Horner.

Every time there's a scene that's supposed to be dramatic, we hear background music of an ululating woman in the throes of death.

It's like, "We get it! It's supposed to be dramatic! Heck, now somebody put the lady out of her misery already!"

None of these quibbles are deal-breakers, however.

Actors such as Sigourney Weaver as a chain-smoking scientist à la Dian Fossey (the American zoologist who studied gorillas extensively) and Stephen Lang as the no-nonsense military commander keep the movie humming despite their limited roles.

The movie, however, is no character study and works best as an alien world travelogue. It strains under the weighty message of environmentalism but never snaps.

It is a bountiful feast for the eyes, if not the brain. Report by David Dizon, abs-cbnNEWS.com. Photos from the official Avatar movie website (www.avatarmovie.com).