After a very, very long time coming, the most hotly anticipated film of recent memory has finally landed. 14 years gestation and awaiting the technology to sufficiently catch up to him, James Cameron has unleashed his “Dances with Smurfs”, amid a climate of fear and trepidation that the hype had outrun the reality of the project, and that this would be Ferngully with thundercats. The screenings of sections of footage in cinemas around the world a couple of months back did little to allay people’s fears, instead fuelling the fire and the backlash to fever point, before anyone had even seen the finished product; in many peoples books Avatar looked set to be the biggest cinematic misstep of all time. Me though, I never had a doubt. Not a one! And my blind faith/stubbornness has been vindicated by what I saw in my local Imax cinema, and indeed again in a regular cinema later on. Avatar is mindblowingly impressive. Brain scramblingly beautiful. Thought shreddingly groundbreaking, and many other hyperbolically italicised plaudits. While it’s not going to be getting any awards for its script, or in places, it’s acting, it undoubtedly sets the bar ridiculously high in terms of what’s visually possible in cinema. An utterly compelling alien world is up there on screen for us to marvel at, and is so detailed, so convincing that you will want to take your holidays there. Even if you’re not much of a sci-fi fan, you really should give serious thought to entering the world of Avatar. Some spoilers follow..
It’s 2154 and Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is finding a new lease of life. After an apparent run of fairly abysmal happenings; he is a marine in a wheelchair after an injury, and his twin brother has just been murdered, he is offered a unique opportunity for a new life. His brother you see, was a scientist involved in a very special project – an attempt at diplomatic relations with an alien species. Earth, referred to in passing as a dying world, is undertaking a mining mission on a distant planet’s moon, where the impossibly valuable and dubiously monikered, 'unobtanium' is abundant, and there the alien natives are causing bother for the intrepid miners. The air is toxic and every attempt to relate to the tree dwelling savages has pushed them further away, making Pandora the most hostile environment in the universe, with the exception of Oxford street on Christmas eve. The less than immediately obvious solution is to grow human/native hybrid bodies, the titular Avatars, which can then be remotely controlled by a human ‘pilot’ from the safety of a pod back at base. Because the Avatars are both hugely expensive to make, and need to be a grown from your DNA – Jake is a perfect fit for his dead brother’s which would otherwise have gone to waste. With not a lot else on his plate, off he jets on a six year cryo ride to the other side of the galaxy, and Pandora.
Despite a chronic lack of training or knowledge, Jake drops into the programme with aplomb – Sigourney Weaver’s Grace is the project task master and is none too pleased about having a trigger happy marine on her team- her protests fall on the deaf ears of the big cheese at the top, the fastidious Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who views Sully as a lucky save. “lucky he had a twin who wasn’t a dental hygienist” he remarks, making fairly good sense. So in his new avatar body, and by various mishaps in the jungle, Jake quickly finds himself among the natives who, thanks to several dubious ‘signs’ from the local deity, agree to teach him their ways. Specifically, he is set to be taught by the chiefs daughter who found him, the confusingly hot Neytiri. From here on it’s all learning local custom and the deep connection (literally) they have to the forest, while at the same time reporting back to the evil human taskmasters. For Jake has in secret agreed to feed tactical information to the mad marine Colonel Quarritch and Ribisi that can help bring down the creatures when the time comes, these villainous types having a totally separate, and uniformly evil, agenda to Sigourney et al, who remain firm Naaviophiles. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know where this is going – it’s no surprise to learn that by the final act, Jake has firmly switched sides, fallen in love with the chiefs daughter, is fighting the increasingly aggressive and encroaching invaders and generally being heroic and alien, flying about the place on his alien dragon-steed. Most of the final act is one of the more spectacular extended battle sequences committed to film, but will Jake and the natives be able to fight off the technological terror of the humans with their shock and awe attacks? Ahem. What do you think?
So the plot is no great shakes, but it’s in the telling that Cameron has excelled. The Avatars themselves are simply extraordinary creations, and an incredible achievement of visual effect and performance capture. Each avatar looks like the actor portraying them, but are patently not them. For a start they’re about nine feet tall – the scenes where they’re depicted alongside the humans are quite startling, and for second, they’re bright blue and have pointy ears and tails. The amount of expression captured in each face is quite remarkable, and was achieved through pioneering techniques developed by Cameron, they are utterly convincing and convey emotion like no other CG creation ever seen – you may think Gollum was pretty good, and he was, but this is a whole new level we didn’t know was there, and the scary thing is it’s only going to improve. Zoe Saldana's Neytiri is particularly spellbinding - her face so full of emotion and expression I ended up wanting a nine foot tall blue girlfriend.
The other star of the show is Pandora itself, and in many ways is even more of an achievement than the avatars. The forest planet is essentially one massive rain forest, full of fantastical plants and creatures, but to think that it has all been created from scratch is simply incomprehensible. Impossibly high trees tower overhead, huge mountains float above the surface, by night the forest is alive with spectacular bioluminescence, the world is simply beautiful in its every detail. The creatures inhabiting it are no less impressive, from the massive rhino like creatures to the airborne pterodactyl-alikes, each one is extremely convincing in its execution, exhibiting perfectly plausible evolutionary traits, even if they are a bit too close too earthbound animals in some instances. Throw in the 3-D and you have a world that’s amazing to behold that you are right in the middle of, and that you will scarcely realise as you’re watching it, that each part of it simply doesn’t exist anywhere except on screen - it's only afterwards on thinking it through that the realisation hits - none of that was real? Impossible! Only marginally less impressive is the human side of the coin, with their mechanised walkers and huge flying aircraft carriers – each piece of hardware is as carefully designed as we’ve come to expect and looks amazing in action, particularly during the latter half of the film when they really get to strut their stuff.
There is however, no getting round the fact that the story is thin. It’s criticism of humanity, technology vs the environment and even parallels to the Iraq war are all barely disguised, and are on paper at least, supremely corny. The villains of the piece, the bad militaristic/capitalist humans, are more 2 dimensional than their CG opposite numbers, being incredibly simplistic comic book baddies, hell bent on exploiting the uneducated tree dwelling native idiots. It's almost insulting to suggest that after such vast leaps forward in technology that society would have advanced so little morally to leave Ribisi so unable to comprehend what the native's problem with him tearing up their home might be. The Naavi meanwhile are portrayed as wise, spiritually rich and morally unimpeachable, and Jake abandons his old human life with zero consequence or regret. It’s a typically guilt laden white man self flagellation, the alien nation here impossibly romanticised into examples of a perfect existence.
But then, as it is an alien nation, it can be romanticised as much as Cameron likes – it’s not really native Americans, it’s not really Iraq, it’s a bunch of blue aliens in a tree (we love tree houses around here after all), and what Cameron has achieved is to be able to put you there unlike any previous attempt to immerse you in an alien world, and it’s a place you will want to visit again and again. You could argue the corniness of the plot almost enhances the experience, as anything more complex in terms of whose side we should be on might have lessened or connection to the world. I wouldn't personally argue that, but you could if you wanted to. What is certain though is that the amount of emotion Cameron manages to wring out of you as we watch Jake delve deeper into the culture is immense – the learning to fly sections in particular are simply breathtaking, and you will feel the outrage and the despair as the humans tear down the beloved trees though which the people speak to their dead ancestors. Oh yes you will. The fact that Jake’s real body lies helpless somewhere else while he’s off leaping though the jungle is also nicely exploited to dramatic effect, giving rise to some great nail biting moments, and the battles when they kick off are just amazing. But Cameron delights equally in the quiet moments, the plants of the forest, some little insect fluttering by, a raised eyebrow of a curious native - all so impeccably realised, how can this not be a documentary? Whether or not this will stand up to scrutiny at home is to be seen, but I want that DVD if just to see how the hell it was all done!
The fruits of Cameron's four year labour in terms of creating a living breathing world are onscreen for all to see, this film grabs you by the eyeballs, and sucks you straight into its world and keeps you there for 3 full hours - you'll be there at the end, cheering and shaking your fist at the screen, ready to sign up to the next freighter that will ship you out to Pandora. But, then you remember, we don't really have space travel yet and you're stuck on this drab little planet, and realise you have no choice but to go back to the front of the queue and buy another ticket to get back that wonderful place. Is this the game changer we had been promised? - absolutely - we are now at the point where technology can deliver things we've genuinely never seen before, and I for one am very excited to see where this takes us next. For now though, forget small steps, Avatar is one giant leap for mankind.
Out of this world