Sunday, 20 December 2009


After 12 years and spending somewhere in the region of $300 million greenbacks, James Cameron hasn't made a film with Avatar...he's created a whole new world (it's not Aladdin, though). In spite of a wobbly, poor plot that threatens to morph into Dances With Pixels or Bravebyte, Cameron's showmanship wins through: this is one film that demands to be seen on the big screen.

After all, Cameron is, at heart, a showman, his films hearkening back to the earliest Cinema of Attractions in offering audiences unrivalled spectacle. Think the Titanic breaking in half or the T-1000 reforming itself from a frozen, brittle mess. On his best days though, he's also able to fuse this with a palpably emotional centre: Ripley mourning over her daughter's death or a machine 'learning the value of human life'.

Avatar, to be frank, doesn't fall into the latter category; the premise is thin and underdeveloped, a derivative collage of 'rally the clan' epics, and there's some serious neglect of major background players (Michelle Rodriguez? She never gets a look-in). It's not difficult to see where the director's heart truly lies: rather than hanging his new creation on a tangible narrative, he's done the opposite, so consumed is he with transporting the audience to a far away land that the story fades into silence.

But what a land it is. Our introduction to it comes courtesy of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine who's taking the place of his deceased brother for a scientific mission on Pandora, a primal savage planet pitted against an invading corporation. Jake's task is to take over an 'avatar', a simulation of the planet's indigenous Na'avi population, infiltrate the tribe and gain their trust so the insidious military types can gain a foothold. However, no sooner has he been inducted into the tribe that he questions his orders and starts to respect the Na'vi way of life.

In other words, the scenario is classic Cameron, a world of faceless company men versus an exotic, savage society; watching it, it's hard not to see the film as an allegory for what we're doing to the Amazon. As always, his future settings have a refreshing, lived-in feel to them away from all the military hardware, where cynical doctors and scientists (here represented by another patented Sigourney Weaver performance) think nothing of puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while the slimy bureaucrats (an underused Giovanni Ribisi) play golf with coffee mugs.

So, the set-up is brisk and effective but the real treat comes when Jake enters his avatar world for the first time. This is where our 12 years of patience pays off and Cameron really gets to have fun: Pandora is an extraordinary creation, where beasts range in size and scale, where some have Jurassic Park-esque trills on their heads, where others glide, bioluminescent style through the air. It's truly heaven-sent and the attention to detail is extraordinary, a place of myths.

It also needs to be said that 3D is the only way to see this movie. Perfunctory in recent efforts as mere window-dressing, Cameron has a reason to shoot in this fashion; watching it, you can almost reach out and touch the flora and fauna. An immersive experience? That barely describes it.

Of course, the movie also wouldn't be Cameron without an intergalactic lovestory crossing impossible boundaries. Here the wonderfully expressive Zoe Saldana continues Cameron's trend of strong female leads as the coiled, agile Neytiri, the human soul of the Na'vi world and the one who convinces Jake to switch sides against his employers. Of course we have to put up with the moments where they bond over a botched horseback ride and lots of mumbo-jumbo but that's par for the course.

So it all sounds promising but then we reach the halfway point and start to realise there's only so much seductive imagery one can take in place of a strong backbone. A victim to modern storytelling trends, Cameron then has to pack pretty much all the dramatic conflict into the second half, leaving it both flabby and corny. As Jake rallies the Na'vi to take sides against the coffee swigging aggressors, one does expect Mel Gibson to rock up in woad (hey, he'd fit in, right?)

This is in spite of some jaw dropping moments (a giant tree collapsing evokes memories of the Titanic's funnel doing just that) and excellent performances from scenery chewing Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch (a man so hard, he doesn't need an oxygen mask outside the base) and of course, Worthington. Is he the new Harrison Ford? On the basis of his effortless charisma, he may just be. He's also brilliantly charismatic, if not, more so, as the avatar Jake, given to freewheeling joy at the return of his legs. More watchable when rendered on a computer? The kid's got a bright future.

But is this the future writ-cinema? It's a yes and no answer but the film is nevertheless raw, unfettered Cameron. In a day and age where filmmakers are frequently forced to compromise their own vision, here is someone with the gumption to wait 15 years so the age can catch up. As a piece of spectacle, it's unmatched, even if all other departments are familiar. Perhaps then, Jake is our own avatar - into Cameron's world. And it's a wondrous place to be.

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