Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Film Review: Avatar

(Directed by James Cameron, running time 162 minutes)

Its been 10 years since James Cameron achieved the greatest heights of the film industry with Titanic, winning 11 Oscars and becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Not only is this the success many film makers hope to achieve but it was with arguably one of his weakest films. Those of us who knew Cameron before Titanic know him for such action Sci-Fi classics such as Terminator and Aliens and after so long, the prospect of Cameron returning to his once beloved genre must be something of a God send to anticipate with a passion, and boy do we all know how hyped this film has been, but is such blind praise justified? In clear cut terms: sort of...

It’s 2154, the RDA corporation has begun mining the resources of a organic rich planet known as Pandora, home to a vast array of exotic alien creates and a race of tribal humanoids known as the Na’vi. Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation fame plays Jake Sully, a wheel chair bound marine who is given the opportunity to participate in the Avatar program, an operation that sees humans take full body control a manufactured Na’vi host in order integrate, communicate and eventually make deals with the local alien populace. It is when in his Avatar form, Jake quickly becomes one of the tribe, even to the point of falling in love with the Na’vi female Neytiri, played by an unrecognizable Zoe Saldana. After seeing RDA for the unethical military giant it is, Jake quickly begins to oppose the power hungry machine that once employed him.

Sounds like your standard affair of the protagonist switching sides and joining the underdogs after the big bad super power step on one too many toes... and it is. With the exception of the remarkable landscape, the story is as distant from originality as your eyeballs will be from the front of your skull if you watch this in the front row. As a result, the story becomes an ever increasing case of predicable plot twists, revelations and other developments. For example after the first sight of Colonol Quaritch (Stephen Lang), it becomes obvious to the viewer that he is the antagonist even if his first impression is somewhat warming. Because of black and white nature of the plot, certain elements outside of the special effects are downright confusing if Cameron is out the make Avatar as believable as it is alien. In one instance, head of the RDA-hired scientists, played by the always fantastic Sigourney Weaver, attempts to explain the science behind why it would be a bad idea to dump yet another mineshaft on sacred Na’vi land but is instead shrugged off by corporate big wigs. In the future, science has, built up the military, taken them beyond the stars and made first contact... so forgive me for thinking we’d take the advice of scientists with more than a grain of salt. Another follows where I then fail to believe that only one token female in the entire armed forces would find an issue with incinerating an entire village for the purpose of profit. It’s with moments like these where the cracks in the narrative begin to hinder the fine water-colour painting that is Avatar.

But I digress, the plot and characterization is by no means bad at all. The story is well structured and moves at a good pace and all actors are capable at worst with many stand out if not memorable roles. Its just when the director calls his film a “character driven piece”, only to then rely on expensive special effects, don’t complain if I was disappointed in the narrative department. And yes I could take about the parallels between the Na’vi and the Native Americans or the ecological subtext but it’s so inherently obvious I would be wasting mine and your time. Its definitely character driven at times, albeit with 2D characters (I mean really, does the antagonist need to have a head of scars?).

But you didn’t come for the characters did you? No, just like with Titanic you came with the promise of spectacle and trust me when I say there’s a lot of it, and it definitely pays off. The world of Pandora is a marvel in it’s own right. Forests of lush illumines foliage, an array of different giant alien beasts that roam the lands in vast numbers, whole mountain ranges floating amongst the clouds, trees that can simply dwarf any man-made structure, the list goes on. Where most special effects these days are nothing more than a new coat of paint for their mandatory explosion sequence, Avatar seeks to immerse you in it’s strange yet exciting world. The Na’vi themselves aren’t bad looking either, being as believable as any other real human on screen. But it is this believability that pays of the most. Where Cameron has succeed in making the Na’vi a believable and sympathetic race, the film quickly transforms into a somewhat docu-drama feature where Jake relishes in the practice of their humble yet fascinating culture, going into great detail about the Na’vi hunting, religious and social practices, with the most striking point being that it’s not boring nor unnecessary. The more you learn about the Na’vi, it will become easier for audiences to sneer at their own race as it is depicted. That alone is a praise worthy triumph.

Despite all it’s issues (again, scars?), I can safely put people’s biggest fears to rest; Avatar is not all style over substance. Sure, the substance could be thicker and while the plot is somewhat formulaic with much of the film’s focus on the lavish CGI, its a definite bar above most blockbuster outings with its uniquely crafted world of Pandora being a place you will probably want to revisit. And as someone who only went to see the 2D incarnation, the bar should be quickly raised another peg in 3D in what will be no doubt a memorable and awe-inspiring experience for many movie goers...

...now if only the closing credits soundtrack wasn’t so cringe worthy.

Also stars Joel Moore, Giowanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez and Wes Studi.

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