Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang
Duration: 162 min
Possibly the most over-hyped film ever, at least that I can remember (bar maybe Jurassic Park), Avatar has finally made it to our screens. After hordes of backlash over disappointing trailers, claims of motion-sickness and general doubts that anything could live up to James Cameron’s claims that this film would revolutionize cinema, how does Avatar cope with such baggage? Personally I’ve been sat on the fence in the lead up to it’s release, I’ve grown bored and infuriated with all the hype but at the same time I grew up watching James Cameron’s films and I’ve pretty much always enjoyed them despite any flaws they might have. So I came to the IMAX screening feeling fairly excited but not without my doubts. What did I think? Well read on….
For those of you that have been living behind a rock for the last year (or fifteen), Avatar is a riff on the colonization of America, with the Native Americans replaced by big blue humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi and the settlers/cowboys replaced by humans in general (all American of course). The humans have come to the Na’vi’s planet, Pandora, at first on a seemingly peaceful mission, teaching them English and learning about their fascinating eco-system, but once the big businessmen learn that the planet holds an immensely valuable ore (stupidly named unobtanium) the humans’ greed takes over. A marine, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) who has lost the use of his legs is brought on board to join an ‘avatar’ programme where humans are used to control Na’vi bodies. This was introduced initially to learn their ways of life, but with a military man on board the top brass use him to help move the natives out of an area rich in unobtanium or learn strategies in which to remove them by force. Jake manages to get close to the indigenous population, but gets too close, falling in love with the chief’s daughter and growing more in-tune with their ‘circle of life’ beliefs. This of course causes all sorts of problems and the film builds to an epic battle for control over the area.
The plot is clearly (as predicted) very much Dances With Wolves with aliens, and doesn’t throw up any surprises, but to be honest I never expect or really want a complex or thought provoking plot when I sign up to a James Cameron movie. Avatar is an experience, not a film. You’d be crazy to expect the script or the performances to equal the spectacle or the technology on display. And it has to be said, Avatar really does deliver on this front. It helped that I watched it at the IMAX, I’d be interested to see the difference a smaller screen makes, but watching this really was a genuinely gobsmacking and exhilarating experience. It took about 15 minutes to get used to the scale and the 3D, I felt a bit woozy at first, but once my eyes had adjusted I was stunned by how immersive the world was (I got a bit of a headache by the end too, but no one else I went with seemed to). A couple of the more frantic action scenes were a little hard to focus on, but it was when the film slowed down that I was most impressed. The scenes at night when the luminescent neon wildlife came alive were staggeringly beautiful and the style felt fresh and original. The action scenes where the camera stayed more stable were spectacular too, with the typically ‘Cameronesque’ robot vs. Na’vi battle particularly pleasing the action junkie in me.
The other aspect that was hyped up alongside the 3D was the use of CGI, with Cameron claiming this was nothing anyone had ever seen before. After watching the final product, I thought the effects were excellent and it contains some of the best CGI I’ve seen, but I don’t think they’re far enough ahead of everyone else to totally blow my mind. What was impressive was just the sheer volume and scale of it all, as well as the integration with 3D. As mentioned before some of the colours and designs stood out too. On seeing the first trailers I was pretty disappointed with the look of the Na’vi themselves, but in the context of their world and up on the big screen they do look quite cool. Some of the first shots when the humans first start controlling their avatars look a little odd, but once they’re on Pandora with the natives it looks great.
Anyway, away from all the fireworks the film isn’t without it faults. I thought the first half was very well done, I really shared the wonder of Sully as he discovered this beautiful new world and it’s inhabitants. The second half however does stumble from time to time with some silly, convenient and predictable contrivances (the tree of souls scenes were pretty cheesy). I also found the film’s chief villain, a military commander hell bent on wiping out the Na’vi, to be painfully hammy and one-dimensional. The rest of the performances were ok, not revelatory, but a good blockbuster standard. The environmental message of the film was heavy handed at times, although not as much as expected. There weren’t any long moralistic speeches that stood out in particular, in fact the dialogue as a whole, although not great, never got as cringeworthy as in say Transformers.
As a whole, it’s solid to standard blockbuster material presented in incredibly impressive packaging, which many will scoff at as window dressing for a pretty textbook film, but for me it was still an awesome experience. I would thoroughly recommend watching Avatar in IMAX 3D, it made me feel like a kid again being blown away by stuff like Jurassic Park, but it’s hard to give it a perfect score because I have the feeling that watching this on DVD or Blu-ray on repeated viewings just won’t be the same at all.
RowThree's UK correspondent.