Monday, 18 January 2010

Avatar Mach II: The Billion Dollar Barrier

It's astonishing but, let's be honest, hardly unexpected: James Cameron's Avatar has taken over $1 billion worldwide and is now second only to the director's very own Titanic, which has been sitting pretty at the top of the box office for over 12 years. In the very likely event that it will overtake the big boat, I'm going to do something I never normally do: review the film again, or rather aspects of it I overlooked initially, in order to see whether my opinion changes. I would never normally do this but Avatar is a real event movie and warrants the attention - how often do we get a film this successful with global audiences? (As I type, it's been announced that 2 Golden Globes have also been added to the pot). Why has the film proven so successful then? Read on!


So Jim Cameron has hit the jackpot once more and confirmed his status as 'King of the World' (the cinematic one at least). Why does he have the Midas Touch?

In my earlier review of Avatar, I claimed the first half was as good as anything Cameron's ever done, a poppy, yet lucid and hugely ambitious sci-fi in his usual vein. It was the second half I had problems with, coming over all Pocahontas on us and full of 'tree hugger crap' (as Sam Worthington's Jake Sully glibly puts it).

Second time round, yes, the latter half of the film is still earnest to the point of self-parody (in contrast to the more confident set-up)...but, really, what's wrong with that? Am I so jaded that a blockbuster with its heart in the right place needs to be villified or condemned? Here, at last is a major sci-fi with the courage of its thematic convictions, one that doesn't exist to cynically sell Converse trainers or mobile phones (you know who you are).

Consequently, I was far more tuned in to the spiritual aspect of the film this time round, one that is established right from the off with the haunting contrasting images of dreamy deep space and probing eyeballs. From the start, Worthington's Sully is just 'another dumb grunt' (in Cameron's usual parlance)...the avatar programme allows him to recapture something humane he has lost (namely his legs, still one of the greatest expressions of joy seen in a film in recent years). It's his decision to, ultimately, give up his frail human exterior for something better, that puts a rather moving seal on a $300 million film with a clunky ecological message and smurfs for heroes. Reincarnation through's a powerful theme.

There are a myriad of other pleasures as well that slipped through the net first time round from the unheralded supporting performances (Joel Moore as the geeky yet inexperienced Norm; Sigourney Weaver's cynical scientist finding redemption in miracles) to James Horner's rich, complex score. Despite his continued self-plagiarism, the composer brilliantly melds the tribal and the mechanistic in one soaring, melodic whole (there's a great deal of brilliant music missing on the lacklustre soundtrack release).

Then there is the strong narrative backbone running throughout like the naturally occuring carbon fibre inside a Na'vi. From the blink and you'll miss it panic of Avatar-Jake worried that the army will do to Pandora what they have already done to Earth, to his drug-like dependency on the simulation state, this is brainy, thoughtful sci-fi at its best.

It's also genuinely life-affirming, a middle finger up at faceless bureaucrats in favour of a more simple way of life, where spirituality, family and nature count for something much more important. Then of course there is the familiar Cameron theme of the redeeming power of love, undulating to the repeated phrase of 'I see you', crossing impossible boundaries and guaranteeing happiness in the beyond.

But of course the main attraction is Pandora itself, a breathtaking creation. If David Attenborough were around to pioneer a BBC nature documentary in the outskirts of space, it's hard to imagine we'd see anything different. From collapsing toadstools to insects that transform into bioluminescent, airborne wonders, the attention to detail is extraordinary.

It seems all of the above has sealed Avatar as a $1 billion meal-ticket, and a well-deserved one at that, enchanting people of all ages. Time will tell all about its influence on future films (in particular, 3D), but we're unlikely, flaws and all, to see anything of its ilk, for quite some time. Well, until Tintin perhaps...

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