Watching James Cameron’s 3-D colossus “Avatar” at home brings three questions to mind.

  • Does the film still captivate in one less dimension?
  • Are those clunky lectures still obnoxious on a second viewing?
  • Did James Cameron get robbed of a Best Director Oscar?

Yes (especially on Blu-ray). Yes. And … most definitely.

“Avatar” doesn’t need silly glasses to keep us engaged. It’s a breeze to enjoy the film on a purely cinematic level – the tightly conceived storyline and whiz-bang action accented by colors we’ve never seen on screen before.

Cameron can’t let well enough alone. The film’s strengths (see above) and weakness (a lecture every 15 min.) make watching the movie exasperating at times.

But corralling all of the above on screen in a way no one has done before still should have netted him an Oscar.

“Avatar” takes us to the shimmery world of Pandora, a tribal planet teeming with Unobtainium, an energy source badly needed by those pesky Earthlings. So a private contractor teams up with scientists to infiltrate the planet’s inhabits, known as the Na’Vi, to find out the best way they can take it.

By force, if necessary.

The company enlists the Avatar program to make it happen, creating artificial Na’Vi bodies and letting humans guide them. A paralyzed Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) signs up for the program, along with a strong-willed scientist named Grace (Sigourney Weaver).

The pair infiltrate the Na’Vi, and Jake makes a connection with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) that could make his mission a success – or prove he’s gotten too close to the locals.

 

“Avatar” is a stark – and welcome – departure from the Michael Bay brand of filmmaking. Story comes first here, and Cameron takes his sweet time showcasing the wonders of Pandora as well as the growing bond between the key characters.

The action sequences startle with their ferocity, and it’s always a snap to suss out who’s doing what. No shaky cams here, nor does the movement run by so quickly we’re left with a gnawing sense of detachment.

The saga of Jake Sully holds echoes of “Dances with Wolves” as well as Cameron’s sudden burst of environmental activism. But the writer/director can’t let his story exist on its own terms. He jams the script with lines that remind us of the Iraq War, the colonial devastation of Native American tribes and modern battles against terrorism.

And while he isn’t the first director to use science fiction to impart social commentary, the heavy handedness of his approach is nearly as breathtaking as the visuals.

Terms like “shock and awe,” “fight terrorism with terrorism” and references to martyrdom don’t just rip us out of the story, they simply make little sense.

Cameron stacks the deck here, making the corporate types inhuman and the Na’Vi as peaceful as puppies. The filmmakers’ moral arguments are so naively laid out that they don’t leave an intellectual mark. We’re left to gape at the scenery, the action and the adventure, and while the film delivers on all counts the commentary simply crumbles upon a cursory inspection.

“Avatar” could be the most anti-corporate film ever conceived, and those who dubbed the film “anti-human” are validated by the film’s final image.

Worthington’s performance does improve on second viewing. He’s an act first, think later warrior, but his emotional evolution while living with the Na’Vi is handled with more shading than the typical blockbuster receives.

And the methods used to create both Jake’s Avatar and Neytiri are even more astounding when seen at home. The facial expressions, aided by motion capture technology, give complexity and a soulfulness to their expressions, the kind that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

“Avatar” represents a quantum leap in visual storytelling that falls back on hackneyed attempts to change hearts and minds about our culture.

DID YOU KNOW: James Cameron pined to make “Avatar” for years, but he feared the technology didn’t exist to make it possible His mind changed, in part, when he saw the CGI character Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers.”