You would think that a half-billion dollars could buy you a halfway decent screenplay. But as James Cameron proves in "Avatar," his first film since the Oscar-winning "Titanic" (1997) and reportedly the most expensive movie ever made, that isn't necessarily the case.
This long-awaited science-fiction adventure, with a production budget that has been estimated between $300 and $500 million, features some of the most impressive digital effects ever rendered. Cameron conjures up a digital universe populated by elongated blue aliens, flying pterodactyl figures and snarling beasts - it's a strange, visionary alien paradise.
But no matter how pretty the pictures, the eco-friendly, New Age-y story here remains trite and uninvolving. Even the most easily wowed moviegoers will likely be fidgeting in their seats, feeling as if they've seen this supposedly state-of-the-art concoction a million times before.
Set in the year 2154 on a distant planet on the brink of war against humans from Earth, "Avatar" introduces us to Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine paralyzed from the waist down. His twin brother, who was part of a top-secret research project, was recently killed, and Sully is recruited to take his place by the company leader Parker (Giovanni Ribisi).
Sully will be transformed into an avatar - a version of himself as a tall, slim, blue alien who looks and sounds like one of the natives of the enemy planet. Once he's welcomed into their ranks, the hope is that he will be able to negotiate some sort of peace treaty. (The company wants access to a coveted ore buried beneath the planet's surface.)
You would have thought the disappointment of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels would have taught Cameron a lesson: Enough with the elaborate sci-fi movies built around arcane land-use disputes. Instead, the director (who also wrote the stilted, often cringe-inducing screenplay) invests himself completely in this tedious scenario. In his avatar form, Sully befriends and soon falls in love with an alien named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Meanwhile, a bellicose Marine colonel (Stephen Lang, who looks and acts as if he's just stepped out of "G.I. Joe's" central casting office) wants Sully to get close to the aliens and learn their whereabouts and habits, so he can eventually launch an offensive against them.
The story of a man torn between two different cultures might have been interesting (it worked for Kevin Costner in "Dances with Wolves"), but Cameron shows no interest in any of the characters. The love story between Sully and Neytiri is embarrassing - a thinly imagined tale of a hesitant and proud woman slowly won over by the rakish charms of a cocky man. (Think "Titanic" with bouncy blue tails.)
The conflict between the headstrong Sully and the by-the-numbers head researcher on the project, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), is similarly one-note. A better filmmaker might have realized that screenwriting isn't his strong suit and hired someone else for the job - but Cameron's "King of the World" hubris once again gets the best of him. He's determined to prove that he can do it all.
The plot mostly seems like an excuse for the director to show off his latest visual inventions. That means we watch Sully escape the clutches of snarling, territorial animals, and attempt to tame a violent winged creature, and journey deeper and deeper into a cartoonish wonderland rendered in pinks, purples and blues. It's a genuinely plausible and striking alternative universe, but it's also sterile-looking and unvarying. By the second hour of this nearly three-hour, 3-D effort, you feel as if you're trapped inside a video game.
The Australian-born Worthington ("Terminator: Salvation") has a round, handsome face and a narrow, penetrating gaze - it's a classic movie star look that both invites you in and holds you at bay. But as much as you want to root for him as a kind of cocky, space-opera successor to Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," the movie never allows him to develop a personality.
Once he's in avatar form, he makes no impression at all (Cameron filmed the actor's movements, and then used his computer to turn them into aliens). The same goes for all of the actors playing the aliens, including CCH Pounder and Wes Studi - each one is indistinguishable from the next.
The final section is little more than a belabored screed against the imperialist, oil-scavenging impulses of modern America. This enemy planet, it turns out, is sitting on the universe's largest supply of energy, and the only way the Earth can carry forth is to plow down all the trees and suck the planet dry. Cameron's "Titanic" also won no points for subtlety, but "Avatar" enters its own realm of bluntness.
Besides, there was a fervent, beating heart at the center of "Titanic" - a romance so intense it felt as if the world hung in the balance. At the center of "Avatar" is merely the hard drive of James Cameron's computer.