James Cameron's Avatar isn't a great film, but it is a spectacular film. A groundbreaking technical marvel that demands you see it in 3D on the biggest screen available to you – as equivalent home technology isn't available or up to snuff. I have no qualms about recommending everyone go see this sci-fi epic, if only to be whisked to an alien planet with a degree of visual realism and immersion never seen before. However, strip away all its fancy digital clothes, and Avatar stands exposed as a naked Emperor: a fairly unremarkable mix of overused narratives (Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas), simplistic characters, ideas stolen from pulp sci-fi literature (John Carter Of Mars) or sub-Disney animation (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), and elements recycled from Cameron's own filmography (the tech of Aliens, the ecology of The Abyss)...
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington -- the new Michael Biehn?) is a paraplegic ex-marine whose twin brother has died, meaning he gets the opportunity to take his scientist sibling's place on a mission to the faraway alien world of Pandora. It's a huge, dangerous jungle moon that's currently being strip-mined by humanity for the precious mineral "unobtanium". Half the team are dumb mercenaries led by clichéd tough-ass Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), paid to do the hard labour for corporate slimeball Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) in huge mechanical "AMP suits" and enormous bulldozers; the other half are liberal scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who want to learn from the indigenous race The Na'avi – nine-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-like spiritual warriors. To do this they have revolutionary technology that allows people to download their consciousness into an "avatar" body – an alien/human crossbreed that compatible humans can control and use to interact with the natives eye-to-eye
As widely reported, Avatar is essentially Dances With Wolves in space. Jake isn't the subservient type that comprise the rest of Grace's obedient eggheads, and his reckless attitude soon affords him a chance meeting with the tribal chief's beautiful daughter, Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña). A romance soon blossoms, despite the fact Jake's acting on secret orders from Quaritch to provide valuable intel on the Na'avi in order to aide the destruction of their "Hometree" refuge, which sits atop the galaxy's largest deposit of unobtanium. Needless to say, Jake grows to understand and appreciate the Na'avi's culture and their belief in "mother goddess" Eywa (whose energy flows through all living things, Gaia-like), so his loyalties become conflicted over the course of his three-month mission and he eventually sides with Panorda's inhabitants against his own, invading "Sky People". But I reckon you guessed all that going in.
See, Avatar isn't really going to surprise you, or take many imaginative twists down fresh paths. The story is simple but effective in giving the film a decent structure on which to hang all manner of vibrant, jaw-dropping visuals. In the traditional 2D format, you'll likely gawp at the lush, colourful imagery and impressive motion-capture (Cameron's ascending the so-called "uncanny valley" that Robert Zemeckis is stuck in), but it's in the much-vaunted 3D where Avatar becomes a truly extraordinary experience. A constant sense of natural depth comes through here, and Cameron wisely uses his technology to immerse you in the world he's created. He rarely rests on the cliché of having characters point or jab objects towards the audience. Instead, the experience isn't so much concave as convex, once your brain adjusts to the method of presentation – which is itself still very alien to most cinemagoers.
Buzzing insects and ethereal seeds float in front of your eyes, foliage and fauna appear to bend out of the screen, and dizzying vistas really do seem to stretch out beyond the cinema's back wall. More impressively, the people and objects have a tangible quality and texture to them in three dimensions. There are close-ups of faces that have a genuine solidity to what you're seeing, and that really brings CGI to life like I've never experienced before. Say what you like about the film, but you'll leave the cinema ready to sign petitions to get your other blockbuster favourites upgraded to 3D and re-released for their anniversaries. I'm already salivating at the thought of Jurassic Park, Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings getting 3D upgrades.
Undoubtedly, the movie itself is very patchy, sags in the middle, and is about 40-minutes too long. It was a pleasure to bask in the 3D environments for this extended period, but the narrative flabbiness leaves me indifferent about re-watching the film in 2D (even in high-definition) because nothing about it truly transcended the pioneering craft that went into its creation. It has an environmental message that's fairly creditable, but it doesn't really offer much to for adults to chew on about the issues presented. It's action first, conservational message aimed at 10-year-olds second.
Avatar has its ideas and themes, but there's nothing revelatory or unique about how any of it's handled. Still, I did like the theme of interaction that oozed from the film's pores – in the notion of these "avatars", the fact the audience are required to wear 3D glasses to enter this world themselves, and in a trait of the Na'avi's deity that proves vital in the final act. It was also amusing to see a climactic battle take place that's essentially an reprise of Cameron's "power loader vs. Alien Queen" climax in Aliens, only now the human in a mech-suit's our enemy and we're rooting for the extra-terrestrial!
Performances are kind of mixed, too. It was great to see Sigourney Weaver again, ageing gracefully and lending everything a certain appeal for sci-fi nerds who grew up in the '80s. Stephen Lang was fun in an extremely passé role of the dumb, macho, gung-ho army leader. Zoë Saldaña is the standout as Na'avi warrioress Neytiri – arguably the best performance from an actor being motion-captured yet, even besting Andy Serkis' iconic Gollum. Aided by the leap in technology, you can really see Saldaña perform here – so much so that I felt like I was essentially seeing her in blue makeup, until her physical dimensions and proportions reminded me otherwise. Sadly, Sam Worthington makes for a disappointing and rather unlikeable protagonist – alternating between annoying, unsympathetic and pretty bland. I don't see what Cameron sees in this young Australian actor, unfortunately. He has no clear charisma or charm (beyond a brutish swagger), and the consequent romance between Jake and Neytiri suffers as a result of his casting.
Overall, Avatar's a treat for audiences to behold, but James Cameron's imaginative world and WETA's avant-garde special-effects aren't enough to turn this into a true classic. Technically, it's an extravagant glimpse at the next decade of big-budget filmmaking, but it doesn't have the story, characters or heart to find a place in your heart when the lights come back up.
WRITER & DIRECTOR: James Cameron
CAST: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldaña, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Stephen Lang, C.C.H Pounder & Laz Alonso.
RUNNING TIME: 161 minutes BUDGET: $240 million (approx.)