Movie review: Cameron's 'Avatar' delivers with Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington shine in "Avatar," even though they do much of their acting through motion-capture animation.
Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington shine in "Avatar," even though they do much of their acting through motion-capture animation. (Weta/Twentieth Century Fox)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

Is "Avatar" worth it?

Not the reported half-billion dollars that was spent to make and market it. Not the 12 years it has taken director James Cameron to bring it to the screen. But is it worth 10 bucks (or $14 if you're springing for the 3-D Imax version)?

The answer is a qualified yes. As Cameron proved in 1997's "Titanic," he has a penchant for melding spectacle and old-fashioned storytelling. Here, the narrative fulcrum is a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl romance. The love affair is between a soldier named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who in the year 2154 enlists with a mission to conquer and colonize a distant moon called Pandora, then falls in love with one of its natives, a blue-skinned, cat-eyed beauty named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

The twist is that Jake has lost the use of his legs in battle and embarks on his adventures, romantic and otherwise, in the form of his avatar, a virtual projection that can run, walk and even fly. Cameron creates a seamless journey between the realistic and imagined world, taking Jake -- and viewers -- back and forth from drab "reality" to Pandora's lush jungles.

What's more, Cameron has managed to get genuine performances from actors who do much of their work using motion-capture animation. Worthington and especially Saldana do a terrific job of imbuing their characters with life and spirit; the movie's finest moments belong to Sigourney Weaver, as the idealistic scientist who oversees Jake's virtual travels, in a subtle nod to her work in Cameron's "Aliens."

Is the dialogue corny? You bet. Does the movie go kerblooey in its final moments, during a ferocious, explosive firefight that will leave your eyeballs bleeding? Uh-huh. But Cameron has delivered what he promised with "Avatar": an ambitious, fully immersive cinematic experience.

One question, though, is whether Cameron's vision is suitably served by 3-D glasses, which sap so much luminosity and brightness from the image. The only way to know for sure is to see the movie both ways, suggesting that Cameron has also achieved state-of-the-art sophistication in money-capture technology.


PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense warfare, sensuality, profanity and smoking. 161 minutes.

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