As I walked down the blue carpet, herded away from the celebrities and stars and hustled into the Empire cinema at Leicester Square, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the choice of carpet colour was a little inappropriate. It would be like going to see a film about a group of bananas with brains* and arriving by walking over a carpet made out of fruit. To be fair, I was probably alone in missing the fact that the carpet was blue in honour of the skin colour of the alien race at the heart of James Cameron’s Avatar, not because it was made out of said skin.
Inside the cinema we were treated to a live broadcast from a breathlessly excited Alex Zane who was working the blue carpet, chatting with various celebrities as they strolled past. This line-up included Simon Pegg, two member of popular music group The Saturdays, and the entirety of the Avatar cast. Soon Zane was inside the screen, introducing the cast and their director to a visibly excited audience. A sea of iPhones snapped ineffectually in the dimly lit auditorium, and a brief speech from Cameron heralded the beginning of the movie. After all of the hype and the waiting, it felt like he really just wanted to get on and see the movie.
Three hours later, applause filled the room. Being a largely British audience there was no standing ovation, though a few brave souls tired to get one going. Sigourney Weaver sat statuesque, imposing and elegantly dressed a few rows in front of me, along with Sam Worthington, who like all Australian film stars seemed like the kind of guy you could go take to a pub and get on fairly well with. Outside a fleet of Range Rovers, Limos and Mercedes sat waiting for their priceless passengers, whilst most of the audience filtered out of a side exit, shivering at the unanticipated chill of the night air.
Right, I suppose I’d better talk about the film then. In terms of the plot, I have one question: have you ever seen FernGully: The Last Rainforest†? If you have, some of the themes, characters and events of Avatar will seem familiar. If you haven’t, I wouldn’t rush out and rent it before you do, and I would also avoid watching the recent ‘Dances With Smurfs’ episode of South Park. To be blunt the plot, characters and narrative tools with which the story is conveyed‡ will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Hollywood blockbuster or watched an established sci-fi series on TV. But then after watching Avatar you get the sense that the plot is secondary to the ‘emotionality’§ created by the world of the film. And that world is realised almost entirely in CGI.
There is no doubt that Avatar is a spectacle. Hundreds of thousands of hours of work has gone into the creation of Pandora, the fictional alien planet which human beings are exploiting in order to mine the hilariously named ‘unobtanium’ deposits. There are plenty of weird alien creatures, all beautifully rendered in 3D, though none weirder than anything you might see on an episode of Life.
The facial animations of the Na’Vi humanoid aliens and avatars are some of the finest I’ve ever seen, and since much of the film involves interaction between two or more animated characters, this becomes integral to audience’s immersion and investment in the film. However, the CGI world of Pandora does not make a leap towards photorealism. Instead the viewer is given an intense feeling of sobriety and an acute awareness of the visual environment. It is a reality intensified by several degrees. This is accentuated by the 3D technique used, and anyone who watches Avatar in 2D will lose a little of this.
Sadly, for all its claims to the contrary, Avatar is not a revolution, or indeed the motion picture event of the decade. The action is frenetic and virtually constant, but it will not be nearly as influential over future films as something like The Matrix was ten years ago. The 3D version is arguably the definitive Avatar experience, though anyone watching it in 2D will be missing out on mostly minor effects, and there are only one or two gimmickey ‘it’s coming right at me’ moments.
So the premiere was an event and the film was basically fine. I’ve no doubt that millions of people will enjoy Avatar just because of its ‘epic’ scale, and will care little about the familiar plot. If you are willing to read it as a parable about the transgender experience then you might get quite a lot out of it too**, but that is probably me overanalysing the source material in a search for comments which are positive rather than indifferent. There have been better films this year, let alone this decade, though you should probably go and catch Avatar when it opens next week, if only to see what all of the fuss has been about. And then watch FernGulley. You’ll see what I mean.
Please remember to check out fellow t5m contributor Neil Innes’ review of Avatar for an alternative take on the premiere and the film itself.
* I call them brain-nanas
† It’s a 1992 animation which you can read about here
‡ Video log voiceover, clunky expositional dialogue
§ Cameron’s word, not mine
**Being born into the wrong body becomes a point of contention