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Sam Worthington in a scene from Avatar

With 'Avatar,' Scots-Irish director James Cameron delivers a high-octane thrill ride

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Sam Worthington in a scene from Avatar

By now the whole country knows that Scots-Irish director James Cameron’s 300 million dollar ten years in the making sci-fi epic opens today. But what they don’t know is that behind the massive international publicity blitz is a genuinely high-octane thrill ride that really should be seen in 3D on an IMAX screen to be appreciated. 

Like many people, I feared 'Avatar' was going to be a showy, bloated, overwrought bore. Not a bit of it. I have no problem admitting I was wrong in every respect. While it would be untrue to say that it’s the life changing near-religious experience that some critics are claiming, I was captivated by this spectacular journey and by the flawless state of the art special effects that brought it to life. 

The film’s unassuming hero is likeable loner Jake Sully, who’s surname could be an abbreviated version of the Irish surname Sullivan, or just a play on words to show how the unwelcome human presence on the pristine planet sullies its beauty (my money’s on the latter). 

Sully, a former Marine who’s now wheelchair bound due to military combat on Earth, comes to Pandora as a hired gun. (Even in the middle of the 23rd-century, the film tells us, some American soldiers are supplementing their income by moonlighting for shady operations). 

Pandora is the name of the bizarre but paradise-like planet that’s home to the 15-foot tall blue humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi. But Sully isn’t here for a vacation, after all, four minutes exposure to the planet's atmosphere will kill any human. Instead, he’s come on this dangerous mission in the hope of raising enough money for a medical operation back on earth to restore his ability to walk. 

With their strangely beautiful Siamese cat like faces and their profound respect for the ecology of their home world, the Na’vi will never support the Drill Baby Drill ambitions of human beings who hope to exploit their planet for a few grams of Unobtanium, a precious metal worth 28 million dollars a gram. 

In a believable but cartoonish depiction of a colonial facedown, the human invaders have no respect for the “blue monkeys,” or their ancient ways. First they offer a carrot (offers to educate and re-house them) then a stick (forcible expulsion courtesy of terrifying, massively powerful flying gun ships). The military, personified by a red-necked southern jarhead who has neither conscience nor compassion, come in for a lot of criticism in Cameron’s movie. They talk about dropping bombs to “shock and awe” the Na’vi. They discuss Na’vi casualties in a way that is disturbingly abstract. They also plot to blow up the most sacred place in the Na’vi’s home world in an attempt to deliver a profound psychic shock they will never recover from. 

All of this chess game unfolds through the 3D camera work that is so subtle and effective it pulls you into the film. The intention is to provide an immersive experience, to make you feel like you might be on Pandora yourself, and it just works from the first scene until the closing credits. 

If you’re Irish you’ll notice there’s more than a few British colonial echoes kicking about Avatar, and they’re far from subtle in their presentation, but the film works best when the director steps back and allows us to marvel at the jaw dropping weirdness and beauty of Pandora itself. 

This is a planet worth saving, and also worth fighting for. Avatar’s message, which is delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head, is that the natural world should be protected. Human beings, the film tells us, have broken their covenant with Mother Nature, and on Pandora they find out what happens when she snaps.

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