The following review is based on my experience watching the film at Birmingham’s IMAX theatre.
Having performed staggeringly well over the Christmas holidays and now surpassing the one billion dollar mark, James Cameron’s Avatar - his first return to feature length film making since 1997’s record breakingTitanic - is not only set to become the highest grossing motion picture of all time, but also the beginning of a major franchise, with whispers of further instalments already afloat. It’s the movie that Cameron said would change the face of cinema forever - or something like that. Bit of a bold statement, but you’ve got to admire his confidence. After all it’s someway there.
When his twin brother is killed in action, paraplegic and former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is drafted into service to replace him on a mission that will see Earth’s military force attempt to mine the planet of Pandora of a precious ore known as “Unobtanium”. He’s promised by daring Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) that if he successfully infiltrates the stronghold of the Na’vi race and provide sufficient intel on how to access their sacred tree over a period of three months - which sits upon a vast resource of Unobtanium - that he’ll see to it that Jake gets back his legs. Thanks to the marvels of DNA research, scientists have found a way to create artificial Na’vi bodies, which can be controlled by humans via synaptic impulses. Jake must quickly learn how to take over his brother’s former Avatar with the help of Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and young recruit Norm Spellman (Joel Moore); a task that he adapts to with relative ease. Soon enough Jake takes to the deep jungles of Pandora, and no sooner than he’s attacked by a pack of wild dog-things that he’s saved by the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter to the king of the Omaticaya clan. Escaping a quick death upon being escorted to the Na’vi’s home, Jake is accepted by Neytiri’s mother, Mo’at (C.C.H. Pounder), who promptly orders her daughter to teach him in the ways of the Na’vi. Thus Jake finds himself in an awkward predicament, struggling to adhere to his military orders as over time he succumbs to the wonders of life on Pandora, in the process falling in love with his saviour and now mentor as he gains the respect for a civilization whose ideals are far removed from that of his own.
The debate as to whether or not Avatar will revolutionize cinema as we know it depends on what we’re talking about really. As a film designed from the beginning to work on a 3-D plane I can only express my ultimate disappointment in not having enjoyed the overall sense of immersive displays that had been promised for so long. It’s an often distracting presentation through which the director draws our eyes to unnecessary pieces of scenery: tables and bits of props in science labs are pushed up front, jarring in their shiny though still evident 2-D appearance as they generate the feeling that we’re watching a bunch of stacked cels slowly pan across screen. Indeed for much of the first act it’s an entirely underwhelming affair. Once taken into the heart of the jungle, however, the scope of the feature begins to greatly expand and things fare slightly better. It’s the smaller details that tend to resonate on a greater emotional scale: bugs; flying debris; the occasional brush of foliage and some truly magnificent water effects doing wonders in ensuring that our retinas absorb as much of this beautifully crafted landscape as possible. Nothing else really holds a candle to these little delights; the action sequences, for all their attempts never quite envelope our senses, which in all leaves it an overall experience of ups and downs.
But with that said, as a film of pure spectacle Avatar is a monumental achievement in the advancements of computer technology. Indeed Cameron and his talented team of artists have truly created a wholly realistic, fully breathing environment, the likes of which has never been seen before in live-action cinema. It’s next to impossible to look at Pandora and not think of any of it actually existing; a fantastically rich and inviting world that you half expect David Attenborough to pop up and go on about the indigenous species for an hour. It’s filled with wondrous creatures and spiritual entities, evidently showing the director for his love of Japanese animation and video games, with clear-cut references to the prolific works of Miyazaki, amongst notable others. This much extends to magical floating islands and the introduction of the human’s mech armour and drop-ships: the hardened steel antithesis to the Na’vi’s sleek embracing of naturally-bred survival instincts. And just as Cameron takes our breath away with Pandora itself, so too does he somehow present us with a race of alien beings in a manner that allows us to sympathise with their plight. In the space of ten years motion capture has moved on in leaps and bounds, and now finally we have fully CG rendered humanoids that we can believe in. The Na’vi are striking in their realization; they have a very distinct presence, which dare I say even goes someway to outstripping their human counterparts, who frankly rarely offer much of great interest, save for Weaver‘s concerned conservationist and Stephen Lang’s terrifically over-the-top patriot. Cameron has simply nailed the fluidity of movement here, his Na’vi are graceful and are composed of such mesmerising detail: their eyes are especially captivating in showing the director build upon the ethos of them being the window to one’s soul. No doubt about it, these warriors are made of pure heart and soul, so greatly perfected that it takes little effort on their part to have our heartstrings tugging on cue. Neytiri in particular steals the entire show, being one of the few with an actual sense of personality, and coupled with Zoe Saldana’s emotionally charged performance goes on to make me wonder if it’s possible to hand out academy awards to animated characters. And yea, she is ultra fanciable as well.
George Lucas once said that special effects are useless without a good story though, a philosophy that he failed to apply to his Star Wars prequels. It’s a bloody good thing then that Avatar looks as damned impressive as it does, otherwise there’d be little getting us through the rather derivative plot. Fifteen years in the making and Avatar, much like The Phantom Menace, feels as if its creator churned out a script over the space of a week. It’s not entirely befitting that he happens to pilfer his ideas from so many different sources, so much so that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The film shares thematic links to Cameron’s own previous works, particularly Aliens with its allegory on a war which should never have been fought: Vietnam now being replaced by the Bush era in light of soldiers tasked with obtaining a vital energy source from a lesser developed nation. The biggest problem with Avatar is that for all his technical wizardry and ideas, Cameron exhausts himself to the point that he has absolutely nothing more to say that hasn’t been said better already. He repeatedly hits us over the head with the mantra that the human race are the evil-doers; once more mirroring Aliens, which lest we forget those creatures were looking after number one at the end of the day. Again the eco-commentary conjures up further recollections of Miyazaki, with more seeming nods to Nausicca and Princess Mononoke, while there’s even a bit of Silent Running and lashings of Pocahontas thrown in for good measure. There’s even a moment where you feel Cameron trying very hard to refrain himself from lifting a key scene from Braveheart verbatim, so anticipatory in its build up that it’s difficult not to giggle for all its seriousness. A slightly less deterrent lies in James Horner’s score, which primarily consists of stereotyped ethnic sounds and chanting. “Hell they’re natives, let’s phone this one home”. Still, it could be worse. At least the film’s closing song - an ear-bleeding routine if ever there was one - is saved until the most opportunistic moment. Cameron you old sap.
With the basic plot being as trite as it is then, the director seems to realise that he has nothing to do but pad out the unnecessary two and half hours with pure filler material. The human attack on the Omaticaya clan is heavily signposted from the start, so that the general order of events and grand finale ultimately offer no real surprises within its narrative. That leaves him to spend a good hour in the middle following Jake about in his quest to become one of the Na’vi. While this would have made for a good opportunity for the director to explore his characters better, he glosses over a lot of issues, thus making the central relationship of Jake and Neytiri a tad hurried. The viewer is left to accept this pairing early on; a fantasy love at first sight routine which ultimately bypasses many of the film’s more important plot points concerning Jake and his eventual character change and subsequent betrayal of his fellow race, to his overall acceptance into the Na’vi’s collective. Yet despite all of this vague threading, it’s still relatively well paced and suitably builds up to an extravagant final act of gun-ships versus dragons.
One thing is for sure though, James Cameron has brought back the action film in a big way. To think that for the last few years there’s been so little of real merit is kinda sad. Avatar proves that he’s been sorely missed all these years, but at least the time off has been well spent. In terms of advancing techniques he’s a director with very few equals, who understands his technology extremely well. The film as an overall piece might have its faults, but as a cinematic experience even they can’t diminish the overall phenomenal effect of what we’re seeing. The gauntlet has been laid down.
Avatar will be playing at cinemas throughout the rest of January, and will no doubt go on to do repeat business. Catch it while you can.