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Planet of the Grosses

Avatar gets lost in space. The Young Victoria rules with a velvet fist.

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So this is what James Cameron spent five years working on?

Avatar, the King of the World's heavily advertised next big thing, certainly has grandiloquent visuals. On the planet Pandora, we're treated to lush Day-Glo jungles overflowing with four-armed lemurs, six-legged dino-horses, stegosaurus-like hammerhead rhinos, gnarly reptilo-tigers, tiny luminescent jellyfish-puffballs, and fearsome flying dragons that, with the proper training, can be used as airborne war ponies by the tall, blue-skinned, cat-nosed, and long-tailed Na'Vi tribesmen who inhabit the forest.

This exotic planet and its creatures are enthralling for the first thirty or forty minutes of the three-hour running time. The sights are wondrous, as they often are in holiday movie extravaganzas. And then we begin to think about things like plot, pacing, and dialogue — earthly concerns, perhaps a bit petty compared to floating mountains and thousand-foot trees, but nice to have around when the going gets tough.

And it's there that Avatar begins to unravel. The unraveling begins slowly, like a hole in your sock on a rainy day, but it grows quickly, and by the time the big battle rolls around in the last quarter we've had enough of Pandora and the Na'Vi and Avatar, and are ready to take another five-year vacation from James Cameron.

The story opens in the year 2145 with the arrival of Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic US Marine corporal recovering from war wounds, on Pandora to take part in a joint military/private-industry exercise having to do with the Na'Vi and their jungle homeland. Sully has been chosen to become an Avatar — essentially a big, strong, blue, tail-wagging humanoid who can breathe the rarefied Pandora air without a mask. The trick is that an Avatar exists in a virtual state parallel to real time, and can exit and reenter his or her Avatar existence freely. This means that Jake, whose legs are useless as a human, can become a mighty warrior by lying down in a special chamber and entering the Avatar state.

The earthling invaders on Pandora are split into two camps: the amiable, nerdy, tree-hugging scientists led by one Grace (Sigourney Weaver, still the go-to gal for alien tussles) and the sinister military-industrial-complex component headed by sinewy Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the representative from RDA, the private corporation that has designs on the stuff that lies underneath the Na'Vi tribal lands. The McGuffin, the thing that everyone on the military-industrial side wants to grab, is called, so help me, Unobtainium. To obtain Unobtainium, RDA and the racist, sexist grunts under their command declare ... a war on terror! What a crazy idea. That'd never happen in real life.

Jake's adventures among the Na'Vi have a distinct Dances with Wolves/The Emerald Forest/The New World flavor. Evil Americans, having despoiled Earth long ago, are now ready to murder and pillage the "blue monkeys" and their green planet in the same cruel, thoughtless manner — unless Jake has a change of heart and opposes them. The rebellion of the tree-huggers is a multi-culti reflection of 21st-century "alt": disabled, women, people of color.

After a dangerous meet-cute involving a savage beast, Jake falls in love with a Na'Vi princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He immediately goes native. The grass-fiber hammocks look comfy and Na'Vi-style sexual intercourse apparently happens in a recognizably human way, despite the native propensity for communing with the spirits of trees and creatures through the hairs on the tips of their ponytails. The Na'Vi as well as the Avatars are animations, so we have to listen hard to recognize the voices of Wes Studi (Eytukan) and Laz Alonso (Tsu'tey) beneath the blue 'toon guise. Dialogue is of the "You have a strong heart" variety.

At some point during the climactic battle scene we become intensely aware that we're only watching a movie. That's a bad sign for writer-director Cameron. It's doubtful that Avatar, special effects and saturation ad campaign notwithstanding, will ever sell as many tickets as Cameron's kingmaker, Titanic. For one thing, the 1997 box-office champ had a pair of identifiably earthly lovers in it — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet — to go along with the creaking metal. With all due respect to actors Worthington and Saldana, they have to emote through an impenetrable layer of CGI while swimming upstream against Cameron's unintentionally guffaw-producing dialogue. That's a tough order. Even the Terminator might balk at an assignment like that.

Three centuries before Avatar, in a faraway world called Coffee Table Film, there dwelt a beautiful princess who became a powerful ruler, The Young Victoria.

Most of the images we've seen of Queen Victoria show her as a grim, plump, elderly dowager empress with a face like a kartoffelpuffer. Gazing at her disapproving likeness, it's easy to imagine why the era to which she lent her name is most often characterized as prim, joyless, and repressive — an atmosphere in which even chair and table legs were skirted in order not to arouse unseemly thoughts.

But director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Vanity Fair, Gosford Park) prefer to imagine England's longest-ruling monarch as the fetching and long-stemmed Emily Blunt, star of The Devil Wears Prada as well as this year's Sunshine Cleaning. In other words, Queen Victoria was a babe.

That may have been. In his book Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards, historian David Hilliam maintains that the young Victoria (born in 1819, she reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901), contrary to popular modern opinion, was a beauty renowned for her wit and joie de vivre. Using the Elizabeth movies as a template, the filmmakers contrive not only to depict the luxury and romance of the English court during one of its most momentous periods, but to place Victoria in a fairly accurate context as a conflicted but ultimately principled woman from the royal German house of Hanover — Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas of Russia were first cousins — who successfully fended off the influence of her European relatives in favor of full-bodied Britishness.

Blunt does a fine job with the role, as do Rupert Friend as her great love, Prince Albert the royal consort, originally sent to England in a plot hatched by the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family to usurp the English throne. Then there was Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), a homegrown pretender to power. Vicky was too headstrong for them. Don't mess with Vicky. As the Kinks' Ray Davies sang: Canada to India/Australia to Cornwall/Singapore to Hong Kong/From the West to the East/ From the rich to the poor/Victoria fucked them all. How the Brits love their captains and their kings.

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