Review: Avatar

Director: James Cameron

Stars: Stephen Lang, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington

***originally written 17th December 2009***

I have to admit it; I’m not fun at all. As much as I love to chew on movies of all kinds, the one variety that is going to get my back up from the beginning is the blockbuster groomed for mass-consumption. I don’t trust them. Or rather, I trust them too much, and enter the cinema with a list of expectations to tick off. Sitting through them becomes an exercise in seeing how focus-grouped, how lifeless, how eager-to-please they are. It sounds snobby, it sounds terribly geeky, and like I’m willingly draining all the fun out of an experience. But it’s what happens. I’m at my most jaded in front of something designed with $$$ in mind.
And a lot of the time I leave feeling as though my time has been more or less wasted. Nothing has moved me. Another shake n bake of the usual elements. Stock characters and overbaked plots. The same old three-act structure. Blah Blah Blah. Only occasionally a weighty Hollywood project has the backing of a visionary director and you get something that not only ticks the industry boxes, but also has life to it, passion. It was there for both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s imaginings of the Batman world. Peter Jackson brought it when he accepted the job of transferring Lord of the Rings to the screen. And it’s clear that with Avatar, James Cameron has it in spades.

This is afterall his baby. Burton, Nolan, Jackson… they were working from someone else’s vision. Cameron invented Pandora. He wrote its language. He even had to invent some of the technology in order to bring it to us. Was it worth it?

It depends on what you’re expecting. For a director so popular, any 11-year hiatus between films is going to cause hype when the hibernation period is over, but to call your return vehicle a ‘game-changer’ for movie production may have whetted appetites too much. Cameron has played with us. Teased us that there’s something really special here. He may have realised his mistake. One wonders if the backlash at the teaser trailer released some months ago was anticipated by the man himself to lower expectations slightly. To remind people, this is just a movie. And it did look like a cross between Halo and Jar-Jar Binks The Movie. Fortunately, that’s not the end result.

After a whirlwind introduction in which a lot of exposition is brushed through, we find ourselves immersed in Cameron’s wonderful new world within fifteen minutes. At first the Na’Vi – the race of large blue ‘humanoids’ indigenous to Pandora – feel very unreal. When former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) first inhabits his new avatar body the viewer rebels against the sense that this is real. Initially, it does look like a trick. A lovingly crafted one, maybe, but still a trick. It is not until Cameron immerses Na’vi Sully in the meticulously designed jungle habitats of Pandora that things begin to gel. And once he meets inevitable-native-love interest Neytiri (the extremely impressive Zoe Saldana) Cameron has you. I was resistant, but damn it, he got me.

What follows is not the all-out-action rollercoaster you may be expecting. For over an hour we are immersed in Na’Vi culture as Sully is initiated and given a three-month tour of the secrets Pandora has to offer. There are set pieces within this to keep the fans of sheer spectacle happy – particularly a joyous section in which Sully meets the dragon-like creatures the Na’Vi ride – and thanks to the loving attention to detail this never feels overlong. Or at least, it didn’t to me. Cameron also uses this section to set up a number of devices that he later weaves into the film’s frankly staggering final 40 minutes. This is where the action is, and it doesn’t let up. I haven’t felt so bombarded by set piece after set piece since, well, Terminator 2.

Which in it’s own way brings up another point. A lot of Avatar feels VERY familiar. For a film labelled a ‘game-changer’ it is very derivative, and mainly from Cameron’s own body of work. A good (and dangerous) drinking game could be constructed around how many overt and accidental references to Aliens occur. There are echoes of that particular film everywhere. Michelle Rodriguez and Giovanni Ribisi seem to fulfill the Vasquez and Burke roles respectively. And the Loaders? They’re back. As is, sadly, that particular brand of wise-ass dialogue that Cameron seems delighted by. Avatar feels more like a Greatest Hits than a career-defining new work. That’s forgivable though.

However, two things did ultimately mar the film for me. One was the voice-over. At the beginning it was handy, and a useful tool to get us up to speed. But midway through? It felt as intrusive and unnecessary as Deckard telling us his thoughts in Blade Runner. If we’re paying attention, we can tell already.

The other sticking point for me is the main villain, Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch, a character so ridiculously evil without particular motive that he quickly descends into wacky caricature, slobbering and growling all over the scenery. His prosaic lunacy and determination to wipe out the Na’Vi for… some reason… feels like something from a lesser movie. It’s as if he’s decided to be the bad guy because nobody else was doing it. Still he drives much of the final hour, pressing all the buttons to make the action spectacle happen.

A lot of people will balk at the new-age aspects of Avatar. Didn’t bother me in the slightest. If anything Avatar is misanthropic. Cameron’s opinion of us humans is largely very low. And the film riffs on everything from the war in Iraq (one character even mentions ‘shock and awe’) to the wiping out of the Native Americans. Intentionally, or not, it does.

But for sheer spectacle, for a pure ride to lose yourself in, I can’t really think of anything better. If you’ll submit yourself to it, Avatar will do what all the best fantasy pieces do. You’ll believe in a wonderful impossible world, you’ll root for it, and at the end, you won’t particularly want to leave it.

9 of 10

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