Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Hype is an overused word these days. Most of the time, some healthy anticipation can really enhance the viewing of a big new movie. In the end, if a film is good enough, it will invariably transcend whatever buildup with which it is associated, such as with the original Star Wars sequels, the Star Trek reboot, or The Dark Knight. However, when internet chit-chat and rumours about a film have been going on since before the internet was even invented, it’s going to be impossible to live up to all expectations. And that’s what’s happened with Avatar.
While it is by no means a crushing disappointment, there are some aspects of this most ambitious of science fiction films that seem a bit too simple, a bit too long and – dare it be said – a bit like they’re stolen from elsewhere
Let’s get one thing clear though: Avatar is stunning. Every minute detail, from the iris movements of the aliens (the Na’avi) to the lichen growing on rocks and the gravity-defying floating mountains of the planet Pandora are so spectacularly rendered that it is now approaching the moment when it is completely impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is not on the big screen. After about 10 minutes, viewers finds themselves totally forgetting that almost nothing they’re looking at actually exists at all. There is genuine emotional involvement with characters who have never even lived anywhere other than inside some guy’s computer. And when the non-existent camera flips over the edge of a non-existent cliff, stomachs in cinemas will flip too. All of this is a terrific achievement, and no film has ever done stuff like this so well, or on such a grand scale. Lord of the Rings came close, but this is truly a whole new world.
But what actually happens in the film? Well, it’s set 150 years in the future, at a time when the Earth (which we never see) is apparently ‘dying’. To help save it (presumably to get energy), a particular mineral must be mined (it’s called ‘Unobtanium’ – seriously), and this mineral is found in abundance on the planet Pandora. There’s just one problem: Pandora is populated not only by a huge variety of exotic plant and animal life, but also by an intelligent race of humanoid aliens, the blue-skinned and sparkly-faced, feline-featured Na’avi. The military’s answer to this problem is to blow them all up of course, but a group of scientists, led by Botanist Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) prefers the diplomatic approach. In an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the escalating tensions between the two races (the most potent supply of Unobtanium is underneath the giant tree that is home to the culturally and spiritually rich aliens), the concept of so-called Avatars is born. These are creatures who, to all intents and purposes, are Na’avi, but have been grown in laboratories with a combination of human and alien DNA, and whose brains are then linked wirelessly to human operators back at base. The idea is for the avatars to venture out into the jungles of the planet’s surface, and try to make nice with the aliens, and persuade them to move before the military go mental. The latest recruit to the programme is paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who finds his loyalties torn as his military commander asks him to find out tactical information on the Na’avi, at the same time as he’s falling in love with the nature-loving alien culture, and specifically with one of the blue-skinned ladies themselves…
The acting is totally fine, and Sam Worthington holds his own throughout – though you can’t help feeling that his Avatar is actually marginally more convincing and interesting, especially when his Aussie accent surfaces. Sigourney does her bit as the intergalactic botanist well, and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is also fine as the Na’avi love interest with a funny accent. The star turn, however, is reserved for Stephen Lang, as the gloriously nasty and brutish space colonel, who wants to blow the native’s “Home Tree” off the planet.
There are so many pieces of other James Cameron films hidden in here, it’s quite difficult to know where to start. It’s hard not to think of Aliens when the space marines appear, and the robot-bodysuit things are more than a touch reminiscent of Ripley’s load lifter too. A lot of the alien plant life borrows more than a little from The Abyss, and the way the love story is constructed is very much Jack and Rose. What’s incredible is that while all those films are pure fantasy, some of the emotional action in Avatar is actually more convincing.
On the one hand the film has a very transparent eco-message at its heart, as well as a warning about how humans tend to treat other cultures (Cameron has admitted that any seeming allegory with Native Americans or US activity in the Middle East is entirely intentional – the phrases “shock and awe” and “we fight terror with terror” appear in the script). However, at the same time, you can’t help but marvel at all the coolness of all the military hardware and all the explosions, something that of course fans of James Cameron’s films (is it too much to call him JC?) expect and demand. To a certain extent, this may be giving the film’s marketing people a massive headache, as they decide quite how to sell the movie. It’s difficult to categorise.
All that said, Avatar is still an excellent film, and it’s likely to be many years before we see another movie this impressive. The sheer breathtaking quality of many of the shots is just stunning, and the emotion that the relationships these blue-skinned unreal creatures can elicit from the viewer are totally genuine. This is the first time that CG/motion capture creatures have fallen in love and expressed themselves on screen, and it hasn’t looked ridiculous. The care and affection that’s been taken with every pixel is astounding, and even the made-up Na’avi language sounds pretty good (it’s actually a ‘real’ language that someone invented, with it’s own grammar structure and everything, proving that such unnecessarily complex touches are not reserved only for George Lucas).
It’s also the first time that 3D has been used to quite such a convincing and unobtrusive effect. Gone are the moments from previous 3D efforts when a random branch would be in front of the camera just to show off that it can be pointing out at you. Now, the technique is used throughout, but only to compliment the action on screen, not to dominate it.
Much has been made of the poor dialogue, and it certainly is not perfect, though that can be forgiven. Perhaps the biggest fault of the film lies actually with its scope. It’s clear that major chunks were edited out (the Michelle Rodriguez character is bafflingly transformed into an important player at the end, and the story of her motivation clearly ended up on the cutting room floor), and the film’s also too long. The nature-loving, tribal dancing, at one-with-the-planet stuff is all a bit too much as well. In the end, after more than a decade and a half considering Avatar, Cameron may have aimed a little too high. But, as this is his first film since the biggest movie in all of history, can you blame him?
Avatar is released on 17th December 2009
By Adrian Hieatt