james debate
james debate

Friday, 25 December 2009

Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 161 minutes

Avatar is the latest creation from world conquering director James Cameron, whose last film, Titanic, set all kinds of box office and award winning records, and whose other credits include the likes of Terminator, Aliens and the Abyss. His latest work finally hits the silver screen after suppoesduly 20 years of work, and amid probably the greatest hype storm of any film this decade, can it possibly live up to it?

avatar james cameron

Despite the simply unprecedented hype, I was actually not particularly psyched before going into this one. For the past few years stories had been surfacing detailing the extent to which James Cameron had been pouring his soul into this film, dreaming of it for decades, having to invent the technology required to film it, and hiring zoologists and bio-linguists in order to craft the most complete and believable alien world ever created, in the most stunningly photorealistic 3D graphics.

This was the promise, and so when the first images and trailers started to appear, they could not possibly live up to such hype. In fact it all looked extremely underwhelming. At the time we were assured it would look much better in motion, on the big screen and in 3D; and now having seen the film in 3D on an Imax screen, I can assure you that we were not misled.

First the basics. SPOILERS. This film follows Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, a paraplegic marine who is recruited by 'the company' to take his dead brother's place in the Avatar program on newly discovered alien planet Pandora. This is basically a method by which humans can take control of bodies manufactured by a combination of human and alien DNA. These aliens are the natives from Pandora, the Na'vi. The 'company' basically wants to harvest a resource 'unobtanium' (which believe it or not is actually a correct scientific term in this context) which is the solution to all of mankind's energy woes back home. Along the way, Jake falls in love with this world and the Na'vi and decides to lead a resistance against the big evil company.

That's your basic exposition out of the way, the bulk of the film follows Jake's avatar as he explores the lush and beautiful world of Pandora. As already mentioned, Cameron went all out on designing this world, hiring zoologists to design all the animal and plant life so as to be totally believable and authentic. This is one of the film's main strengths, but at the same time it is also the first weakness I'm going to mention, albeit not a very important one.

You see, for all the talk there's been of effort that's been put into this side of the world, it's all a bit superficial, and you get the impression that these 'experts' pocketed a lot of money for not really doing a whole lot besides giving the thumbs up to some artist's wacky doodlings. Most of the creatures are imaginative, sure, but inexplicably designed. For example the six legged horses, watch them move and you will see them run just like regular horses, except with two completely redundant extra legs that in real life would have been removed by evolution. It's a small geeky point and one that is completely irrelevant for most people's enjoyment, but considering this film is trying so hard to claim kudos for such attention to detail, I feel it's worth pointing out that it fails in this regard.

The far bigger concern, however, lies with these Na'vi themselves. In a movie that strives to be fresh and original and believably alien, these aliens are inexplicably based on the most cartoony of native American stereotypes. You've got the chief, the warrior, the mother Earth, they look and talk like something out of Pocahontas (Now that I think about it, the plot of this film is pretty much an exact replica of Pocahontas). This is not the only example of cliché either, the entire 'company' and everyone who works for it are portrayed as such one dimensional 'bad guys' that it becomes a little trite to watch.

It doesn't help that the plot itself is full of Cameron's political soap box preaching, with a strong environmental message about how every living thing is connected and we evil humans are destroying our mother Earth and whatnot. This is buffeted with a secondary serving of post-colonial guilt as we watch the scary modern soldiers wipe out the poor indigenous natives (indeed this is the only reason I can see for the inclusion of native American stereotypes, they should have just skipped it). It's all very overwrought and feels forced. I don't think it's a bad thing for a film to have a deeper message, quite the opposite. But when done right it should integrate with the plot seamlessly, and it certainly does not in this case.

But these are the only complaints I can find for this film, and it is otherwise an excellent piece of cinema which more than makes up for any preachiness and cliché. The fact is that Cameron is simply a great film maker, and this film just oozes with confidence and accomplished story telling. The drama is fully engaging throughout, and paced expertly so as not to put off the casual movie goer, whilst still keeping your average sci-fi fan interested. And as always, Cameron knows exactly how to pull your heart strings; you will be excited when he wants you to be, you will laugh when he wants you to, and you will weep. In addition, he once again reminds us why he is the master of spectacle. Few other directors can pull off such grand set pieces whilst still keeping in touch with the viewer on a personal level. This is why Titanic was a success, and he does it again here in the climactic scenes of the film. He simply does not disappoint.

This is supported with strong performances, in particular from Sam Worthington who plays the lead, Jake, with a nuanced combination of heart and self interest, while Giovanni Ribisi also shines as the darkly comic company suit, Parker Selfridge.

But the real star here is the world of Pandora, and the technology which makes it all possible. For all the subtext and political statements, this film is on the surface a western set in space. The best bits are the ones where Jake is simply out there exploring the unknown. And it doesn't really matter if that world is not the masterpiece of realism we were told to expect, this film succeeds precisely because it pushes the boundaries of believability. The world is brimming with imagination and wonder; huge jungles, floating mountains, neon trees and flying jelly fish. It is so achingly beautiful to look at with damn near photorealistic graphics, and the Na'vi themselves are creepily lifelike when you see them up close. At times you honestly will not be able to believe your eyes, you'll feel like you're really there. Never before will you have felt so completely enveloped in such a strange and magical new world.

As for the 3D aspect, the jury is still out. The glasses are still bulky and annoying and really bug you for the first few minutes, but after that you won't even remember you're wearing them. The graphics themselves vary from some absolutely brilliant 3D work, to times when it just looks like a bunch of flat images placed at different distances from the camera. Overall this is the closest I have ever come to seeing a film that really justified the use of 3D technology to me, but I'm still not convinced that this is the way of the future.

In the end, this is just a real cinematic event, and a landmark film. There are annoyances and poor film making decisions, sure, but frankly you won't have trouble overlooking them when you're watching something as engrossing as this. Never before has cg and live action been so throughly and sublimely blended, and it's something you really have to see.

Stunning photorealism
Evocative direction
Beautifully realised world


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